Christy Tengs Fowler
About the artist
Christy Tengs Fowler is a songwriter, producer and poet. After life put a pause on her dreams, she was inspired by Dr. Phil to stay true to herself and restart her musical journey.
Confidence to be Her True Self
The Foundation partnered with 49 Writers, a literary nonprofit, to profile Individual Artist Award recipients from 2017 and 2018.
Profile by Katie Bausler
“I’m a middle-aged rapper leading Gramma to the crapper,” raps Christy Tengs Fowler. “I always have a song in my head.”
We’re hanging out in the kitchen of the family apartment where the Haines songwriter and her brother, Tony, grew up. It’s above the historic Pioneer Bar and Bamboo Room restaurant her parents bought in 1953. Also with us are sons Chevy, 22, and Marty, 19, her 92-year old mom, Helen, and Tony, also a songwriter, from Juneau.
When Christy and Tony were kids, the family would gather around the piano and sing as their mom played tunes by ear. A steady stream of blues and honkytonk emanated from the bar’s jukebox downstairs. These days Fowler dances her mother (who has lived with the family for 12 years) around the kitchen. Fowler’s father, Marty, died in 2000. He was a fantastic storyteller and voracious reader with a prolific vocabulary. “For every word I asked him the meaning, he’d give me five new words.”
Fowler studied classical piano through high school but doesn’t play or perform anymore. “I’m a songwriter.” She’s drawn to country music for its storytelling power. She writes lyrics and melodies, and hires session vocalists and musicians to perform them.
One recent work was inspired by her aging mom:
Grandma puts her pants on wrong
But she remembers every song.
Another, by a neighbor with stage four cancer:
We have been given a present,
something money can’t buy.
It’s the sweet ocean air, the voice of a friend,
the color of the evening sky.
MacBook on the counter, Fowler scrolls through a collection of more than 100 songs she’s written and produced over the past four decades. There’s R & B and 80s pop rock from her time at the esteemed Berklee College of Music. She was the go-to lyricist for classmates who went on to produce Broadway musicals, soundtracks and albums. Her specialty was “goofy girl-group 80s songs.” A catchy ditty called “Boomerang” is her boys’ favorite.
Though she was not initially drawn to it, rap is another genre in her wheelhouse, the result of a road trip to the Yukon with Chevy. “He played rap songs the whole time. I decided to just embrace it, to connect with my son.” She wrote a rap with a hallmark of the genre — calling out other rappers. “Here erupts Christy Tengs. Can throw it down like Wu-Tang.”
Fowler’s current focus is the production of a couple dozen traditional country tunes for a documentary soundtrack. She took an uncommon route to get her songs out to the world.
A long time ago, Fowler erupted as a poet and songwriter. Her father put her poems in his ads for the business. In 1965, at age 10, she flew down to Juneau to sing one of her songs on a TV show broadcast from the capital city. At 13 and 14, she and Tony formed a band called The Young Dandelions. At 18, she won the Miss Teen Alaska pageant with singing as her talent.
In 1983, Fowler returned home with a degree in audio engineering, eager to start a music career. The first step was paying off student loans by working for her dad. She wrote 83 songs that summer while running the business. She was offered a job with CBS publishing in Nashville, but let it go when her father urged her to stay in Haines. “To be honest,” she says, “I probably wasn’t confident enough.”
Not long after that she met her husband, Bob. He arrived in Haines from California for work in the lumber mill. Between the business and raising a family, her dreams of pursuing her passion moved beyond the back burner.
About a decade ago, sitting at the desk in her home office, paying the bills, feeling like she couldn’t put off her dream any longer, she turned on the television. There was Dr. Phil, the well-known self-help guru. He espoused answering your calling, being your true self, making your life what you wish it could be.
Fowler wrote Dr. Phil quotes on notecards that then became spreadsheets leading to more than a third of the songs in her laptop. A music producer wandered into the bar and said he could help her produce them in Nashville. She saved her tips and arranged to go. Family business woes almost nixed the plan. Fowler’s voice cracks and her eyes fill up when she recalls that time. “Tony said I had to do this.” He paid her way. She returned with a CD of moving country tunes performed by some of the best musicians in Nashville. “Rise Above Your Raisin’” was sparked by her father’s alcoholism. “Just Do It” is a reminder to be true to your calling.
Her Dr. Phil Project sparked the curiosity of Alaska journalists. A team of young filmmakers thought her pursuit would make a great film. A few years ago, they followed Fowler around the restaurant as she served meals, threw out table scraps and wrote songs and poems. “Above the Bamboo Room” is now in the editing process.
Fowler dreams of becoming a full-time songwriter. Her volunteer vocation is go-to poet for community milestones. She’s written at least 1,000 elegies in memory, in honor of, or for someone’s birthday. Haines writer Heather Lende says many of her stories start with Fowler, whom she calls Haines’ Poet Laureate.
She can’t help it. “She loves word play and rhyme,” says former Chilkat News editor and publisher Tom Morphet. He recalls a newsroom conversation about the line: I used to haul bananas to Edmonton, Alberta. “She wrote an epic poem in response to it,” he recalls. “How she found time to write that shows she thrives on creative energy.”
Much of her energy is spent trying to keep the family business afloat. The bar is popular with heli-skiers in March and Southeast Alaska fairgoers in July, but near empty on some winter nights.
The Bamboo Room is a quintessential small-town grill: red leather booths, burgers and shakes loved by locals. Bob cooks up “world famous” halibut and chips and Marty waits tables. Fowler takes a break from our interview to pour water for customers and wipe down Formica tables.
“When he was a senior in high school Chevy pointed out that we’d never taken a family vacation,” says Fowler. “Someone always had to stay in Haines to run the business.” She saved for a trip to Las Vegas for the four of them to see one of her musical idols, Merle Haggard. “And when he sang, “I hope I make it through December,” we all held hands and cried.” Then she wrote about it.
“Writing is my therapy,” she says. “I listen to my own songs to make me feel better.”
Writer Katie Bausler is a lifelong teller of stories on the page and aloud. Published written work includes columns, poems and essays in Alaska Dispatch News, Stoneboat, Tidal Echoes and Alaska Women Speak.
2017 Project Award
Fowler will hire musicians and vocalists to record 25 original songs and prepare them for publication. The songs will be part of a documentary of her life, Above the Bamboo Room, scheduled to premiere at the Chilkat Center for the Performing Arts in 2018.