A prominent Haines businesswoman has achieved her lifelong dream. And it took her only 16 years to do it.
Christy Tengs Fowler, 68, appeared on the “Dr. Phil” show May 11, after trying to gain attention for her lifetime of writing songs – many of them inspired by Dr. Phil himself.
The Fowlers held a viewing party May 11 for the episode of Dr. Phil in which she described her life’s work. Her many friends and supporters, who were crammed into a small space at the back of the bar near a television, broke out into raucous cheers whenever a glimpse of her appeared on screen. Then they quickly hushed themselves so they could hear her speak. A film crew was on hand to record the event.
Fowler has long co-owned The Bamboo Restaurant and Pioneer Bar with her husband, Bob. Before that, she had a nascent career as a singer-songwriter, and even graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a prominent school with branches in New York City and in Valencia, Spain.
But just as it looked like her career was taking off – she even was offered a job as a songwriter on the staff of CBS Records – her father put the kibosh on the whole deal. He wanted her back home in Haines to run the restaurant. That was back in 1985.
“I chose the easy route,” she said of her decision. “I just chickened out.”
There was a bit more to it than that. Back then, Alaska had a program that forgave student debts if they returned to work in Alaska. Up to 50% of a student’s debt – 10% a year for up to five years.
“And then I never left. So the program worked, because they wanted to keep Alaskans home,” she said.
In 1991, she became the owner of the bar. She’d been working for her father as a bartender since she was 19, which was the legal age for drinking back then. Before that, she worked behind the scenes, doing her father’s books. Since then, she describes her past 32 years as “a lot of good times and a lot of hard times” as she looks to sell the bar, which has been in the family since 1953.
Some of the best times came from the cruise ships and the heliskiers. There was a lumber mill in town, and a lot of other things as well.
For years, Fowler stayed behind the bar, running things and adding up the receipts every night. Then she got hooked on the life advice of “Dr. Phil,” the well-known show created by television personality Dr. Philip McGraw.
From there, things blossomed, but only very slowly. She noticed that Phil’s words were not only good advice, but also good music. Just about everything he says has a musical “hook.” And everything he says, he puts in a simple way, to describe what people can do to help themselves.
“In an easy, folksy way,” Fowler added.
His advice – and now her songs – are also therapeutic, she said.
So Fowler began writing songs around Dr. Phil’s favorite sayings and aphorisms. In 2007, she wrote her first Dr. Phil song. “Rise Above Your Raisin.'” The song is a humorous take on a guy who drives into a ditch and decides he’d rather stay there instead of solving his problems. And – of course – Dr. Phil himself comes to the rescue during the song.
Then she wrote another, and another. Now she has about 60 songs about Dr. Phil.
“I just love writing them; I just can’t stop,” she said.
Five of her songs, including “Rise Above Your Raisin’,” are on abovethebambooroom.com.
You can also hear “I Never Knew How Strong I Was.” That song has a different feel from the country vibe of “Rise Above.” Her son challenged her to write two rock ballads, and that was one of them.
A friend of hers, Terri Weagant, heard about what she was doing. At first, the idea was that she should create a one-woman play about Fowler’s songs. Then Weagant told a friend of hers, David Wulzen, and the project grew into a film.
Dr. Phil’s advice also helped her business. In 2007, living above the Bamboo Room, she realized that all the cigarette smoke from the bar was wafting up the stairs and affecting the health of her then-young children. So, in keeping with Dr. Phil’s advice about being one’s authentic self, she made the tough decision to ban smoking in her place – about a year before it became the law in Haines.
She took a financial hit on that, at first. But new customers came in to replace the few she lost. And more importantly, she was standing up for herself.
“It was one of the best decisions we ever made,” she said.
As for her songs, she hasn’t done much with them yet. Some of them were professionally recorded in Nashville; while others, not so much. All are important to her, and she’s still going. Someday, as she said on the show, she hopes to be Dr. Phil’s personal songwriter.