Seeking Doctor Phil; Restaurant owner hopes TV host takes shine to tunes
Christy Tengs Fowler has been a songwriter most of her life, but it took "Dr. Phil" to spur her to follow her dream of recording a country album in Nashville, Tenn.
She recently returned to Haines with her demo album, "The Dr. Phil Project," which includes nine songs based on the lessons and philosophy of Dr. Phillip McGraw, the psychologist and television talk show host.
Her goal is to produce an album with McGraw that would help shore up finances at her struggling bar and restaurant.
For years, Fowler watched "The Dr. Phil Show" while calculating the previous evening’s sales at her family-run business. She kept index cards close by to jot down advice that spoke to her, and soon had a stack.
"I looked at Dr. Phil’s advice and realized they’d make some great song hooks," said Fowler. Three years ago she decided to write the album.
Fowler, 55, grew up surrounded by music in a home where words mattered. Her dad, who worked crossword puzzles with a pen, was a stickler about language. Childhood friend Judy Heinmiller, who performed alongside Fowler during local stage shows for visitors, said even her friend’s earliest scribbles rhymed.
Fowler graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in 1983. For her lyric-writing ability, other students often sought her out when creating new songs.
After graduation, Fowler recorded a demo album in Los Angeles and hit the pavement in Nashville to promote her songs. She was offered a chance to work with CBS Records’ staff writers, but her father wanted her home in Haines to run the bar.
In 1991, Fowler and husband Bob took over the family business as owners of the Bamboo Room and Pioneer Bar.
"This project is my do-over," Fowler said. "I wanted to get out of my box and do something good in the world."
She rented a small office for writing and ordered all McGraw’s books. She started with "Self Matters," but couldn’t get past the second chapter before realizing she needed to make changes in her life.
That was when she decided the restaurant and bar would no longer allow smoking, in part for the health of her family, who lives over the bar. Later she read McGraw’s book, "The Ultimate Weight Solution," and lost 20 pounds.
Her personal experiences fed her songwriting. She wrote songs that celebrate people and encourage them. "Just Do It" is based on a New Year’s resolution show when Dr. Phil told his audience, "You don’t have to want to do it. Just do it!"
In Fowler’s version: "Willpower won’t power you, when you run out of steam. You gotta get off your butt, get out of your rut, if you wanna live your dream."
"Christy has that ability to capture the everyman beat," said longtime friend Debra Schnabel. "She grew up in a bar with a jukebox, so she knows a hit when she hears one. More than a few of those songs could go to the top of the charts."
Fowler met recording engineer Miles Wilkinson when he came to Haines to work with local musicians. She started saving money from tips at the restaurant to pay for her own recording time at his Nashville studio.
The financial demands of running a small business twice forced Fowler to put her savings back into the restaurant. Finally, her brother provided the money and encouragement she needed to get to Nashville.
Wilkinson’s staff helped her hone songs and booked session players to lay down the "bed" of rhythm for each track at Studio 19, in the heart of Nashville’s Music Row.
"The guys were phenomenal. That was one of the best days of my life," Fowler said. "It was like bringing a baby to life."
Over the next two weeks, she worked to record lead vocals with five musicians Wilkinson chose. "I really had to let go of what I pictured in my head and let the process take over. It was scary, but I’m so happy with what came out of it."
She left Nashville with nine finished songs on a CD and headed to Los Angeles in search of Dr. Phil McGraw. She’d been working with friends who tried to help her communicate with McGraw and his production team, but leads fell through. "I knew it was up to me to find Dr. Phil."
Fowler rented a car and started driving. She slept on a relative’s couch in Long Beach, a Los Angeles suburb. She wasn’t able to get a ticket to "The Dr. Phil Show," but she did score a spot in the audience of "The Doctors," produced by McGraw’s son.
A friend advised her to wear bright, solid colors to increase her chances of being seated up front. The strategy worked and she was moved up to the second row. She noticed that a woman seated next to her seemed connected to the show’s staff. Carol Smith runs a bus tour that brings in audience members.
In a moment of desperation, Fowler knelt in front of Smith and asked for her help. With a copy of her CD in hand she asked, "Is there any way you could get this to Dr. Phil?" Smith took her hand and introduced her to Andrew Scher, one of the show’s producers, who took the CD. A week later, Smith got another copy backstage for McGraw’s wife.
Fowler is now home in Haines, back to the daily work of running a business and raising a family. She has high hopes for the album. "Dr. Phil has been such an inspiration to me and I want to share that gift," she said. "I’d like to work with Dr. Phil and be his songwriter. Music has the power to speak to people and reach a wider audience."
She’s working through traditional channels to contact McGraw’s staff now that she’s home. She’s drafting letters and sending out CDs. She’s also reading. Now that the album is a reality, Fowler is ready to finish "Self Matters."