And then, in 1972, he got tired of his store-bought duck calls not sounding like real ducks and decided he could do better. After a good bit of tinkering, he came up with a call that used two reeds instead of one, with its other genius innovation being a little dimple in one of the reeds, to keep them separated, a touch that Si still does by hand. Once sales took off, he began producing a series of duck-hunting videos known as The Duckmen, featuring background music by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pink Floyd, as well as wild stuff that you would never see on A&E, like ducks being blown out of the sky in slo-mo and Phil biting off their heads. He sold a bunch of them. He also became a popular public speaker, taking his duck-call know-how on the road, talking to hunters everywhere, and preaching the good news of the gospel while he had their attention. In 2009 this led to a hard-core duck-hunting show on the Outdoor Channel, which in turn led A&E to give him a call in 2011 and suggest a reality series that was less about the actual hunting of ducks than it was about a funny redneck-y family obsessed with ducks. Phil thought that might be okay.
He's back in his recliner now, Bobo snuffling by his feet. His beard reaches nearly to his sternum. "See, what we're doing is the old thing where you can be smart but act pretty dumb," he says. "When I started out in the duck-call business, my college buddies would come in and say, 'Robertson, you have a college degree. What are you doing?' Then they drove away saying, 'What an idiot!' Thirty-five years later, they're saying, 'The sucker's a genius!' Took me 35 years to go from idiot to genius."
Jep, 35, is here now, sporting a T-shirt that says death before shaving. Like his dad (and beardless older brother Alan, 48, who appears on the show for the first time this season), he was once a sinner, a boozer, and a druggie, but after the family staged an intervention when he was around 19, he returned to the fold, joining Duck Commander as the in-house videographer. And soon Willie, 41, arrives, too, wearing regular-type jeans and a checked shirt. In 2002, Phil made him the company CEO, after which Willie set in motion an ambitious expansion plan that successfully landed its duck calls in sporting-goods superstores like Cabela's. Lately he has taken to tooling around in a camo-colored, duck-emblazoned BMW convertible. Finally, Jase, 44, who is in charge of Duck Commander's manufacturing operation, ambles in, wearing de rigueur camo britches, of course. And it really is quite something to see them all together, especially with those wild-outgrowth beards. Phil's is gray, bifurcated and long. Si's is shorter and lopsided. Jase's is short, too, trimmed back somewhat on his cheeks, and is definitely the neatest. Willie's is the bushiest of the bunch by some margin.
Does he shampoo it at least sometimes?
"Oh, yeah," says Willie. "Whatever falls off the hair goes on the beard and, well, yeah, I do put shampoo in it. And a little conditioner after that. It's probably been 10 years since I shaved. I just looked so weird without it, like half my face was missing."
Photos from the pre-beard days show an entirely different family from the one on display here today. Back then, the boys looked like frat-loving preppies, entirely presentable, especially Willie, who frosted the tips of his short blond hair and wore khakis. Even then, however, when hunting season arrived, they'd stop shaving and let the whiskers come to help keep their faces warm while outside. Around 1987, Phil decided to dispense with the razor forever – he said it was because he wanted to teach people not to judge a book by its cover – and his sons followed suit. Now the beards are just a part of who they are – and, no doubt, a big part of their success on TV.
For a moment, they talk about what Phil was like as a father and disciplinarian. They say that no matter what you did wrong – like the time Jase broke a paddle while using it to kill a cottonmouth snake, a serious violation of Phil's rule that you never use a paddle except to paddle with – he did not strike out with furious rage. Instead, he would go get his belt – or tell you to go get his belt – and dole out three licks to the buttocks, just three, and that would be it.
"The worst part of the whippings," says Jase, "is we had to go lean over the bed and wait for him to come do it, like 30 or 45 minutes, so you had time to really think about what was coming."
Phil coughs into his fist and says, "I noticed they all turned out to be godly men, so it didn't rob them of their self-esteem."
One thing Willie and Jase have in common is that, unlike some of the other family members, neither went through a period of youthful rebellion. From day one, they both stayed in the church.
Never smoked even a little dope?
"I've never done drugs," says Jase, who in person seems much less given to wild-eyed schemes and ideas than he does on TV. "And I've never been drunk."
Jep starts giggling. "Jase, tell about when your buddies gathered round you and said, 'You've got to have sex with your girlfriend!' "
Jase kind of shrugs and smiles, and says, "I've never had immoral sex. My first sexual experience was on my wedding night."
"What'd your buddies tell you, Jase?" says Jep. " 'Look, you're not even going to know what to do!' "
Right around then, Willie, who was known to be quite the suave lady's man back before marrying Korie, quickly crawfishes sideways into the dining area and away from any possibility of being dragged into the conversation.
"Well," Jase continues, "on my honeymoon night, it wasn't, like, you know – it was more like the little game operation. It was like – "
"A study of human anatomy?" posits Jep.
"Yeah, like, let me see what we got going on here. But you gotta remember, I'm not one into peer pressure. I didn't drink when I was a kid, because my dad – going to the bar – I just said, 'Whatever that is, I don't want to do it.' And the sex thing, I thought, 'I'm gonna wait until I get married.' I was six days short of 21. And she was a virgin, too."
One more thing: None of them smoke cigarettes, but all of them dip into the snuff. Phil introduced them to chew when they were young. He had his reasons. "When you're dealing with young men, for lack of a better term," he says, "it's best for them to discover the great outdoors, and, in my humble opinion, to make sure they stay men, give them a little chewing tobacco from time to time. Spitting on the ground is a sign of maleness in our culture down here." That may be, but it's also another thing you'll never see on the show. A&E also likes to tone down all the faith talk, and no way, of course, will you ever see Phil bite that head off a duck, which would probably cause the weak hearts in the audience to pass out, although the scene where Si waves a skinned dead frog around, pretending to make it speak, maybe ought to have been considered too much, too.