Alaska Life

Saloon owner writes country songs inspired by Dr. Phil

Christy Tengs Fowler has been trying to get the attention of Dr. Phillip McGraw -- "Dr. Phil" of TV talk show fame -- for months. She'd like him to hear a CD she made that uses his popular motivational phrases as the basis for country western songs.

But, like the guy in one of her ballads who sits in his car, stuck in a ditch, ruminating over "my ex-best friend and my last ex-wife . . . my drunk old man and my hopeless mama," she hasn't had much luck.

"Nothing has happened since spring," she said in a phone call from her home, a former brothel in Haines. "I just got swallowed up by the business when I got home."


Fowler grew up in this small town at the top of the Alaska Panhandle where, even as a child, she was known to have a talent for song writing. She left Alaska to study music, graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, one of America's top conservatories, in 1983, cut a demo album and headed for Nashville.

She was just starting to get nibbles when the call came from home. Her aging father, Marty Tengs, needed her to help run his bar. Putting duty to family above her dreams of stardom, she returned to Alaska.

That was 1991. Christy and her husband, Bob Fowler, eventually took over ownership of the Pioneer Bar and Bamboo Room restaurant. With their two sons, they live upstairs in the Gold Rush era building, along with Christy's mother, Helen.


The place was a house of prostitution in the 1930s, owned by the notorious Lou LaMoore, who also ran a sex worker business out of the Senate building in Juneau.

Marty Tengs bought it as a saloon and card room in 1953; a bamboo curtain separated diners from drinkers, hence the name of the restaurant. It's famous for halibut fish and chips, ranked in the top five by Coastal Living magazine this summer. The bar is party central for heliskiers, featured in Skiing magazine and prominent in a number of extreme snowboarding films.

"All of this would be great if we could actually make a living," Christy Fowler lamented. "We really struggle in the winter, with a quarter of the income and twice the overhead."

Summer tourism boosts business, but it makes sleep hard to come by.

As she turned 50, Fowler looked at the seemingly endless stream of dirty beer glasses, tables needing to be wiped, orders needing to be cooked, bills and more bills -- and found herself in a midlife funk.


While doing the books, she turned on "The Dr. Phil Show" and took what comfort she could from his practical advice. "There's no good news or bad news, only news," he said. She wrote it down on a note card.

"Do you want to be right? Or do you want to be happy?" he asked. She wrote that down too.

After a while, she looked at the stack of notes she'd made from the show and realized, "They'd make some great song hooks."

Three years ago, Miles Wilkinson -- a recording engineer who formerly worked with Ann Murray -- wandered into her bar and, after a little conversation, those long-cooled hopes of making her mark as a songwriter broke into a little flame.

She wrote down her songs, saved her tip money, got some extra cash from her brother and, this past March, returned to Nashville to make a demo recording.

The nine cuts on "The Dr. Phil Project" were done on March 29 and feature an impressive array of professional talent. Wilkinson himself produced the CD. Backup musicians include drummer Kenny Malone, who played with Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, and steel guitarist Dan Dugmore, who was part of Linda Ronstadt's band for 14 years and with James Taylor for 11. Vocals feature Tim Bays -- you've heard his work on commercials -- and up-and-comer Justin Spears.

Fowler's next goal was to get the CD into the hands of Dr. Phil himself. That's not easy, since performers of his caliber just don't accept unsolicited material.

She went to Los Angeles hoping to get close by getting into the audience for his show. That didn't work, but she did make it into the second row of "The Doctors," produced by Dr. Phil's son. The woman next to her had a business relationship with that show. She introduced Fowler to one of the producers, who took the CD. Another copy went backstage for Dr. Phil's wife, Robin, whose own book was the source of one of Fowler's songs, "You Are Not Alone." Copies were also mailed to his agency.


Fowler never found out whether any of those CDs came to Dr. Phil's attention. It was the end of April. Tourist season loomed and she had to return to her day job.

Since then, she's been too busy to pursue the matter further. On Thursday she got up early to pack about 100 box lunches for visitors heading out on a bear-viewing excursion up the Chilkat River, a daily chore at this time of year.


"One more day next week and I'll be freed up," she said. "I really want to get back to that project."

What if she never hears from the man? Would she release the album anyway?

The tunes are pretty good and the words are downright catchy. "Best stay clear of that rear view mirror/And you'll get where you wanna go." "If you're stuck on what I'm doin' wrong/You'll be right and I'll be gone."

The Chilkat Valley News cited Fowler's childhood friend Debra Schnabel, who noted, "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."

Tim Bays is the vocalist on "Rise Above Your Raisin'," in which Dr. Phil offers to give a tow to the whining protagonist and advises, "You know what I prescribe? Shut up and put it in four-wheel drive!" He thinks it has possibilities.

"He told me that if I couldn't get it to Dr. Phil, then he wants to put that song on his next album," Fowler said. "But I'm kinda of guarded about it."

For one thing, "The Dr. Phil Project" is a demo for which she paid "demo wages." The CD cost her about $1,000 per song. "If I released it as an album, I'd have to go back and get contracts and pay album wages. The goal is really for Dr. Phil to hear it and have his favorite artists sing the songs."

Also, she hopes, to do a little good in the world. "Home of the Brave," about a seriously wounded soldier, is particularly close to her heart. The chorus comes with the punch line, "It's mighty lonely here/In the Home of the Brave."


"I want this song to raise money through the Dr. Phil Foundation to help our wounded warriors," she said.

"This is my dream. And you gotta have a dream."

So, when the bear viewers go home this month, she'll throw herself back into sending out the demos and lyric sheets, maybe returning to Los Angeles, hoping that, somehow or other, the guy who unknowingly inspired the music will hear the songs and take a shine to them.

It's a long shot, she knows. But she takes heart from the advice that Dr. Phil regularly urges on his viewers.

"Just do it."

Find Mike Dunham online at or call 257-4332.


Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.