Dottie Ashley, The Post and Courier, July 7, 1996

From tears-in-your beer to Texas-swing, Charleston’s Garden theater was filled with good ol’ country-western tunes last night when it was transformed into the “Cowboy Cafe” and a talented cast blew the roof off in the opening performance of a seven-week engagement.

The musical’s setting is a down-home restaurant in Success, Arkansas, a roadstop located between America’s two great county music meccas, Branson, Mo., and Nashville, Tenn. But the employees of the Cowboy Cafe soon learn that their place of business is facing an untimely demise. In three weeks, the Army Corps of Engineers will tear down the levee that holds back the mighty Mississippi and the whole town will soon be under water.

Bonnie Bramlett-Sheridan plays the cafe’s owner, Billie Joe, an aspiring singer/song-writer and legendary barbecue queen, who cooks up a plan to burn down the cafe for the insurance money. Make no mistake, Bramlett-Sheridan still has the star quality she exuded in the 1970s when she sang with the likes of Leon Russell and Joe Cocker, in a career to music stardom that began as a back-up vocalist for Tina Tuner and recording success with the group, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. The role of Billie Joe is a departure from the sassy biker/waitress she played on TV’s Roseanne for two seasons. As the owner of the down-and-out cafe and motel, she brings megawatts of energy to the stage, whether singing her show-stopping numbers or playing the role of the worried business-woman, arsonist, and mother of two grown daughters.

A stellar group of actors and musicians accompany Bramlett-Sheridan, including playwright Phyllis MacBryde, and eight other cast members. MacBryde plays Billie Joe’s oldest daughter, Louisa, a down-on-her-luck singer, who has returned home after eleven years on the road, considering herself a failure since she never hit the big time. MacBryde’s flair for comedy and energetic vocals keep the story moving, while disarming the man she longs to marry. A standout is Roger Bartlett, in the role of R.L. Pickett. Bartlett, who wrote eleven of the musical’s twenty songs and arranged the score, is a recognized guitarist and session musician who once played lead guitar for Jimmy Buffett. The composer of the Charlotte Hornet’s theme, Bartlett wrote the music for Richard Petty: The Legend for the home video market and has also contributed to a number of platinum-selling albums and movie soundtracks. Bartlett’s “Golden Stallions,” sung by Byron Crawford Smith who plays Louisa’s heartthrob and the country crooner, Les, poignantly laments the vanishing of the western hero. Another memorable moment in the show is “Mighty Close to Blue,” also sung by Smith, a song that tells of lost possibilities. Using a harmonica and a guitar, Byron Crawford Smith conjures images of slow-dancing by the railroad tracks beneath a full moon.

Bartlett and MacBryde’s raucous “Bad Mood,” sung by Marc Keller, is a clever invention of battling guitars, and Teresa Campbell, Billie Joe’s younger daughter, shows off a superb voice in “Pass by the Bay,” a song about how difficult it is to want to be something more than a waitress and motel maid.

Along with barbecue, Cowboy Cafe serves up buckets of belly laughs and whether or not you’re a country-western fan, you should enjoy the variety of numbers.

By Rachel Rivers-Coffey, Watauga Democrat Reviewer, July 13, 1994

“Breaker, breaker. Anybody out there on this super slab?”
“You betcha, buddy-row.”

The Blowing Rock Stage Company’s production of Cowboy Cafe is out there, watchin’ them 18-wheelers roll on by. And Les, the cowboy “short on gumption,” but long on love, is Byron Crawford Smith, a guitarist handy with a harmonica, and stone cold sober in love with . . . his truck.

Of all the songs which tell the story, “She’s a Beauty,” by Phyllis MacBryde and her fellow composer, Roger Bartlett, is my favorite. When Les sang, “She’s a beauty, heavy duty, she’s my truck.” I was possessed of the notion that this song – among many other possibles – should be a natural for national status.

Whenever the Cafe Cowboys played, the hall in Blowing Rock was saturated with the sound of GOB (Good Old Boy) fancy-Dan, high falutin’, down-home-out-West-glorious music. It’s all built around the Phyllis MacBryde book and musical about the new breed of cowboy: that fearless band that drones along the highways and byways in big rigs with hot motors. And cabs you can sleep in.

The cafe is the lair of this generation, and MacBryde and fellow composers Leslie Ellis Adams and Roger Bartlett throw out plenty of delightful country and western numbers for Louisa (MacBryde), Les’s love interest, Missi (Leslie Ellis Adams), and Mama (Pebble Daniel) to sing. Talk about your whiskey-voice beautifully under control, Pebble Daniel in the role of the girls’ mama, Billie Joe, can belt out a tune with considerable punch. Daniel has toured with Tammy Wynette, Jimmy Buffett, Ronnie Milsap, Crystal Gayle, Leon Russell, etc. etera

The theater audience becomes the latest bus tour to blow in and gets to sit in on all of the action. MacBryde’s script even brings audience members on stage to take part in the rowdy fun. There’s some heavy-duty, cap-backwards, cawn-tree hell-raisin’ going on musically, and finally it becomes Louisa’s job to see if she can wedge Les’s affections away from his chrome-coated, multi-wheeled love, and focus them on her, where they rightly belong.

Mama Billie Joe’s cooking is world-famous. Heck. Elvis said hers was the best he had ever had. And they all got a gander when, Schwoosh! – Johnny Cash’s bus kept on grinding past, missing all that food and mischief and inventive, gotta-have-the-cassette lyrics. They’ll sell you on, too.

Phyllis MacBryde has a voice that can encompass everything from the campy and the cornball, to the courageous. Good show, I say, all around. Director Chuck Rounds, choreographer Gary Walker, musical-director Roger Bartlett and scene designer Jennifer Wynn O’Kelly are all due special mention. You gotta check these guys out. And pay attention to the program credits. These people aren’t just “going” somewhere. They’re already there.

E.G. Painter, The Times Journal, August 10, 1994

The 48th season of summer theatre at Burnsville’s Parkway Playhouse ended with a bang with Cowboy Cafe, which had the highest attendance of any show produced at Parkway in the past ten years. It also attracted the interest of North Carolina Public Television which filmed a segment about MacBryde and Parkway Playhouse. both of these stories ran last week on the North Carolina Now program.

The theater is drawing from a larger geographic area than ever, with audiences composed of about fifty percent year-round residents and fifty percent tourists and summer residents. Parkway’s managing director, Bill Dreyer, is very pleased with the growing interest in the Playhouse productions. “We are especially grateful for the support shown by our audiences and the entire community,” Dreyer said.

Testimonials of patrons leaving the production of Cowboy Cafe were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “My wife and I have seen many fine arts programs and somewhere near 1,200 plays over the last forty years, but none better than this one,” said C.A. Painter. “It is truly a rare treat to watch people love what they are doing and doing what they love. The casting was excellent and the lyrics and music were outstanding. Thank you for the best night of entertainment my wife and I have had since coming to Burnsville thirteen years ago. Your performance tonight was just superb!”

Mark Morrison, The Roanoke Times, October 27, 1995

Let loose, Cowboy Cafe, the new musical at Mill Mountain Theatre, is part over-the-top spoof of a stereotypical barbecue honky-tonk and a bittersweet ode to musical dreamers and truck-driving cowboys. At a preview performance Wednesday night, the musical had its hilarious moments as the Cafe served up belly-laughs and barbecue in two acts that become a full-tilt hoot.

Credit here should go mostly to the cast, particularly Pebble Daniel and David Ippolito. Daniel plays Billie Joe, the aging barbecue queen who runs the Cowboy Cafe and Motel in Success, Arkansas, with characteristic roadhouse bravado. Ippolito plays Les, a songwriting trucker with a soft spot in his heart bor Billie Joe’s eldest daughter, Louisa.

It is characters like Billie Joe and Les that set things up for a huge farce. “Elvis said mine was the best he ever had,” she says by way of introduction. He though her barbecue was pretty good, too. And Les sings, “She’s a beauty, heavy-duty, she’s my truck.”

The set also hinted at the playful tone, with its Elvira and the Party Monsters pinball machine, its posters-on-the-wall shrine to country singers like Willie Nelson, and its rack of motel keys with cactus-shaped key chains.

The nearly two-dozen musical numbers roll along at a lively pace, and there are a number of conflicts in the plot to hold them together. Will Les and Louisa ever find true love? Will jealousy come between Missi and Louisa? And what will happen to the Cowboy Cafe now that the Army Corps of Engineers has decided to tear down the levees along the Mississippi River and flood the town?

The songs are the real emphasis. They go from spoofing tear-in-you-beer songs in one number to offering up a real tear-in-your-beer song in a later number. Many are catchy and have clever lyrics and there are at least two show-stoppers in the bunch, the true test of a good musical.

Cowboy Cafe has its charm and it offers memorable tunes to hum past the exits.