Editor's note: If you're one of the lucky ones, the Spoke just might change your life. Such was the case for Danielle Thomas, owner/operator of Big Green House. She concludes our two-part series in honor of the Broken Spoke's 50th birthday with the tale of how one visit to the Spoke spurred her transformation into one of Austin's most connected — and creative — individuals.
I've never written down the story about how I ended up in Austin, but if asked, I could easily just answer, "the Spoke." And that would be true. But the much longer version is pretty great and reveals a level of serendipity I've been very lucky to have in life. It's made everything everything. So, here it goes...
Andrius Masedunskas and another friend from school at the University of South Alabama were biology students and they were heading to Austin for a convention with a blues-loving biology professor who called himself Sweet T. They asked me if I wanted to come along just for the hell of it and lucky enough I had a $600 travel voucher from Delta (about six months earlier Delta had overbooked my flight out of New York and I had agreed to take a later flight to make some room). So I said “yes” and away we went ... to Austin ... in Texas ... where I had never been or had ever even thought to go.
I showed up looking as "Austin" as I knew how, but culture shock hit the second we walked in. "Is this place for real?"
My friends were busy during the day so I spent the downtime roaming around and planning our nights. Somewhere near the Congress Avenue bridge I got on a Dillo headed for Barton Springs and a guy who I came to know as "Crazy Carl" handed me his Austin Chronicle. The Broken Spoke was on the cover. It was their 40th anniversary party that Thursday night. In that moment Crazy Carl redirected my life's path.
I called the Spoke to ask ... I don't know what ... but I got the answering machine and heard Mr. James' voice for the first time: "Broken Spoke ... last of the true Texas dancehalls ... 40th anniversary ... party ..." I was sold and I was taking my biology buddies with me.
I somehow acquired cowboy boots for the occasion. I still don't remember how that happened because I was broke. But South Congress was definitely involved. I digress.
I showed up looking as "Austin" as I knew how, but culture shock hit the second we walked in. "Is this place for real?" The cowboys, the pretty ladies, the happy kids running amok, the unexplained dummy named Rowdy sitting at one of the dining tables, the photo museum with a clean-faced Willie Nelson, the people dancing in a circle who all knew the same dance. I couldn't believe any of it. How did they all know the same dance?
Part of my getup was a Hank Jr. T-shirt I got from a Goodwill in Alabama and I had cut the neck out of it. I was standing near the bar at the back of the dance floor when a striking, tall, blonde girl walked by. She looked back at me over her shoulder and said in an impossibly cool voice that I was sure had been somehow overdubbed, "I like your shirt." That girl was Brennen Leigh. If you know Brennen, you know four words from her is enough to stick to your ribs.
Not even five minutes later I was still standing there completely bewildered. I made eye contact with a cute cowboy (or at least a boy wearing a cowboy hat). He asked me to dance but very quickly added, "But not to this one. It's too fast." To this day I still smile and wonder why he didn't wait for a song he could actually dance to before he asked me. That guy was Seth Hulbert.
I danced my first two-step with Seth. He was a great teacher and at some point I stopped counting steps long enough to ask him what he did in Austin. He said, "I'm a guitar player. But not a very good one."
Well, anyone who has seen Seth play knows that is entirely untrue. He's an amazing guitar player. I didn't know if he was being honest or humble and frankly I didn't care. He was a guitar player. Now I know you can't swing a cat in Austin and all that, but I was newly 23, not from a music town, and he may have been the first guitar player I had ever really talked to, certainly the first I had danced with.
After the right-tempo song ended he said he wanted me to meet his sister. I thought he was moving a little fast, but what the hell ... I went with it.
He walked me over to a table on the stage-left side of the room on the first step up. Low and behold. His sister was the stunner who had said she liked my shirt. He introduced me to Brennen, who was maybe 18 — but probably 17 and really only 16 — with the presence of Loretta, the looks of a beauty queen, and the voice of someone who may kick my ass. And Brian Keane — whose smile and humility somehow made enough of an impression on me that I mostly just remember the split second he smiled and warmed me to my core.
I fell hard for all three of them and everybody else they were with. Mind you, at that moment, I had no idea I was talking to three of the most talented young musicians in Austin. All I knew was that they were unlike anybody I had ever met and I didn't want to ever not be there.
Andrius walked over and said they were leaving. I think it was pretty clear that I was not.
Brennen and Seth invited me to their show at the Big Red Sun the next night. I went. To say they blew my mind is an understatement. They did more than that. They changed the way I thought about music and people and life.
"I'm not coming home yet. I'm going on the road with a bluegrass band I met at this honky-tonk a couple of nights ago."
They invited me to their other shows that week ... in San Antonio and Houston. So, I called Delta, told them I had a sick sister in Texas I had to attend to, and went on the road with Brennen and her band. I called my mom and said, "I'm not coming home yet. I'm going on the road with a bluegrass band I met at this honky-tonk a couple of nights ago."
Off to San Antonio we went. My favorite part of that visit was going to see the Alamo and Seth telling tourists that we lived there. Originally from Gun Barrel City, Texas, but at the moment, "We live here." "Where? San Antonio?" "No. Here. At the Alamo."
I don't remember much about Houston.
We eventually got back to Austin and I missed my flight back to Mobile four more times. When the time came that I really needed to get back to class — I was graduating a month later — Seth slipped something into my suitcase that would change my life forever. It was a SXSW brochure.
I got back to Mobile, unpacked, found the brochure and the email address to contact about internships. I had only seen those imposing letters, "SXSW," one other time and it was in the Stuff To Do book in my room at the Hampton Inn. I didn't know what it was or when it was, but I sent my resume in.
They called me. ("They" specifically being Katie King and Wendy Cummings.) They offered me an internship and asked if I could start in three weeks.
"Hey, Mom! I'm moving to Austin! In three weeks! To work for freeeeee!" My mom and my push-up bra are the most supportive things I've ever had (I would add my partner Adam to that list now). She was sad, she would miss me, but she waved goodbye with a smile.
My internship was with Hugh Forrest doing some marketing for Interactive & Film. Such a lucky break for me. He gave me goals and let me figure out how to get there. If you ever have the chance to work for him, do it.
Brennen and Seth let me stay with them until I found a place, which ended up being a garage behind a Latin professor's house on St, James Street. I was working at SXSW for free and had to make some money. The only bar or restaurant I knew how to find was the Broken Spoke. So, I headed there.
The Spoke was my home. Passing its threshold was like being reborn into my new life over and over again. It still is.
It was lunchtime and I sat at the bar. This knockout bartender with hands-down the best style I had ever laid eyes on took my order. "Water, please." She came back and asked me why I was having water for lunch and I told her I spent my only money on a deposit to live in a garage on St. James. She slid a yellow notepad my way saying, "Well, write your name down, if you have a car, your phone number and days you can work ... we may need some help sometime."
That Broken Spoke bartender was Cella Blue, future member of the White Ghost Shivers — the band I ultimately quit SXSW for and started Big Green House to manage. Cella gave my info to someone and that someone called me. She said their door girl disappeared and asked if I could be there Friday night. Well, of course I can!
That started my "Friday and Saturday nights" career as the door girl at the Broken Spoke. With my hair braided into pigtails most nights, I got to meet the best people in the world and dance with countless charming cowboys (or boys wearing cowboy hats). Mr. James would stand at the door with me and recount stories of the Spoke's history. Which, as I hope you know, is nothing but pure gold, and getting to hear them straight from him is something I will never take for granted.
I kept that door job long after I started working full-time at SXSW. The Spoke was my home. Passing its threshold was like being reborn into my new life over and over again. It still is. I didn't know where I was going but I knew I started in the right place.
My mom, sister and brother-in-law all ended up moving here within a couple of years (thanks to Richard Whymark for the help there). So, the Spoke didn't just change my life. It changed theirs, too.
Since 2004, the Spoke has been the point to which I can trace nearly every one of my life stories back. It's hallowed ground for me. My biggest story — the story about meeting Adam and making my son Bowman — starts with Brian Keane. Which, as you now know, also started at the Spoke.