Redneck, Inc: The Duck Dynasty Story

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Photograph by Andrew Hetherington

Way out Jonesboro Road in West Monroe, Louisiana, past all the Baptist churches, past the Jack Fluck realty signs, past the Guns & Gifts store, past the dog playing dead in the middle of the road, you will find Phil Robertson in the ramshackle house where he's lived with his wife, Miss Kay, for the past 37 years – a born-again, God-loving, God-fearing bayou couple if ever there was one – and maybe his gap-toothed brother, Si, too, and his boys, Willie, Jase, and Jep. One thing is for sure: They'll mostly all be dressed in full duck-hunting camouflage regalia and wearing headbands to restrain their long, knotted hair but letting their long, freaky beards fly free. All of them will probably have gotten ready for the day the same way Phil has – "There's not a lot of personal hygiene going on," he says; specifically, no brushing of the teeth (that being reserved for nighttime), no combing of the hair, no flossing of the teeth, no shower, no face washing, no deodorant – and they will all look slightly dazed and bewildered by the success of their A&E TV show, 'Duck Dynasty,' which is about them, their wives, and their incredibly lucrative duck-call business.

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Phil, 67, flips up the footrest on his camo-patterned, extrawide La-Z-Boy recliner, wiggles his toes in the air, tells the rat terrier named Bobo to hush, and says, "We're trying to infuse a little good into a culture in which gentleness, patience, kindness, self-control, love, joy, and peace have become abnormal."

Si, 65, is sitting next to him, sipping tea from the blue Tupperware cup his mother sent him while he was serving in Vietnam and that has since become nearly as famous as he has. "Sad," he says, shaking his head.

"Very sad," says Phil. "I go out into America and I am literally navigating a minefield. Godliness has become abnormal. I just left California, where I spoke to 40,000 altogether. I told them I was a Bible man. I told them I believe that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. 'What's he trying to say? That I can't sleep with anybody I want? Is this guy crazy?' Then they see a little family structure on TV – us – and the show goes ballistic. Thousands and thousands of people have thanked us. Isn't that right, Si?"

Si bobs his head and says, "Yeah."

This past February, the third season of 'Duck Dynasty' debuted with 8.6 million viewers, the most in A&E's 29-year history, double the number from the previous year and second only to AMC's 'The Walking Dead.' Their catchphrases – Phil's "Happy, happy, happy," Si's "Hey, Jack" – have entered the vernacular. They've appeared on Leno, Conan, and Jimmy Kimmel, which was also going to feature the singer Morrissey, until he canceled after learning who his co-stars would be, calling them "animal serial killers," a slur to some but not, of course, to the Robertsons. On their show, they are portrayed as fun-loving and happy-go-lucky. They get into nutty situations – racing lawn mowers, sucking bees out of a hive with a vacuum cleaner, getting busted while nighttime frog hunting on a private golf course – ending each episode with a sweet resolution, a family united in prayer and a meal, all while Willie, in voice-over, enumerates the sundry moral lessons to be derived.

It's good and clean and there's no swearing, no sex, and no broken marriages. It's gone over so well that when it came time to renegotiate their contract for the fourth season, the clan was able to demand and receive substantial raises, rumored to be around $200,000 each per episode. "Certainly we asked for more money," says Phil. "Look at the ratings!" And then there are the ancillary benefits. Both Phil and Willie have books on the New York Times bestseller list. Duck Commander, their company, sold 160,000 duck calls last year, for as much as $200 each; so far this year, it's at least 800,000. In fact, the operation's warehouse has become a bona fide tourist destination, with lines forming to enter the company store (Duck Commander "bling" hats, $34.95; cast-member bobbleheads, $24.95) and girls from New Jersey easing up to Jase in the parking lot and saying, "We've got a hotel room down here. Thought you might want to come over and have some fun," an invitation, needless to say, that he declined.

It's seriously crazy. Born poverty-level poor, each of the Robertson men is now a multimillionaire. Phil takes a giant slug of his coffee, nods at Si, and says, "Me an' this ol' guy here been running together since we were this tall, and we just can't figure it out. We had no idea the bang was going to go out the roof. We said, 'What in the world?' I mean, I just do not understand why it went whew." He goes on (as he tends to do): "The scary part is that hundreds, if not thousands, of women want to marry Si. 'Course, he's already married now about 40 years, but womanhood has dropped to a new low in America if all those women want to marry Si."

He and Si chuckle about that, then Phil turns sideways in his La-Z-Boy and pulls on his beard, peering into the distance. "The only plausible explanation for what's happened," he says, "is divine intervention." You'd expect him to smile after saying something like that. But he doesn't. He just looks straight ahead, adamantly, like it's not only his truth but also the only truth, and it makes you wonder. But then he needs more coffee, and Si needs more tea, and they both get up, and a little mallard-duck-head plush toy hanging on the end of a light cord begins to drift lazily in the soft morning air, and the world seems pretty right, at least while you're here.Phil grew up nearby, with no electricity, no running water, and a toilet 200 feet deep in the woods; went to Louisiana Tech on a football scholarship; was first-string quarterback while future Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw sat on the bench; maybe had a future in the game; maybe had a future in education, which he got a master's degree in; decided he'd rather hunt ducks; smoked a lot of dope; listened to a lot of Hendrix; drank himself silly, mostly whiskey straight from the bottle; hunted out of season and was an outlaw that way; had already married Miss Kay, his high school sweetheart, when he was 17 and she was 16 and pregnant with their first son; made a living selling flathead catfish at 70 cents a pound; started leasing a honky-tonk bar called The Hill; fooled around with women; badly beat up the bar's owners and went fugitive; returned, only to kick the family out of the trailer home where they all lived; was a part of the evils of the world, until one day he went to Miss Kay and begged her to take him back, which she did, under the condition that he stop drinking, get rid of his old friends, and receive the Lord, which he did.

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.The modern world has often enough arrived at Phil's doorstep, mainly in the form of long lines of well-wishers and fans, so many that, just last week, he finished installing a siren-festooned electric gate on his road to ensure privacy for himself and his neighbors. Nonetheless, he is still very much a throwback. He wears no rings, not even a wedding ring, and no watch; doesn't own a suit; has never fired up a computer; has never held a cellphone to his ear for much longer than a split second, meaning that the BlackBerry charging in the bathroom must belong to another family member, not him. He does not spend his days thinking about all the bang and whew that Duck Dynasty has brought into his life. His home is small and plain, and he has no plans to change anything about it. "This place is probably worth $100,000," he says, "but I consider it a mansion."

Si grew up in the same circumstances as Phil, but Phil got a football scholarship that enabled him to go to college and thus avoid the Vietnam draft. Si was drafted into the Army and shipped off to fight, during which time he, too, was a sinner. "I kept a fifth of whiskey in my pocket everywhere I went," he says. "I tried dope one time, okay, like marijuana, but why would you smoke something that makes you feel 100 years old? So, drugs wasn't it for me. In my mind, it was alcohol and whoring around." He takes a sip of tea and continues, "Look, I worry that people put us on a pedestal now. We're human beings. We make mistakes just like everybody else."

Si found religion after Vietnam, left the service after 24 years, and immediately went to work for Duck Commander. He's probably the most popular Robertson on Duck Dynasty – mainly because he'll do anything (he eats coon poop in one episode) and says the funniest things, like "First it's pretty tires, then it's pretty guns . . . next thing you know, you're shavin' your beard and wearin' capri pants" and "I sting like a butterfly and punch like a flea" – and his newfound fame has led to a few problems. "The other night," he says, "it's 12:03 in the morning, and somebody is knocking on the door, and I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me,' and I look outside and there's 25 people standing in my yard. You know, He's the reason this show has gone on like it has, but I have to ask Him every day, 'Give me strength to deal with this.' "

In the flesh, Si seems somewhat more reserved than he does on the show, and he often defers to big brother Phil. When Phil takes off on a long spiel about the pitiful state of the world, Si waits until the very end to offer his two cents.

"It ain't gun control we need; it's sin control," he says.

"Self-control," Phil says.

"Self-control," Si repeats.

"Self-control and sin control," Phil says, getting the last word.

It's almost lunchtime. Phil steps into the kitchen, tells everyone to gather round, and says a prayer. After that, his boys and Si heap spaghetti onto their plates, and pretty soon a few long beards are showing evidence of tomato sauce.

Phil isn't in any hurry to eat. He's talking about the "many, many, many" times a woman has come on to him since Duck Dynasty hit it big.

"They walk up with a pair of little bitty, bitty bikini underwear and say, 'Will you sign these?' Well, my first question is, 'Are they clean?' But, see, as I move forward on my travels, I make sure I take two things with me, my Bible and my woman, Miss Kay. You see what I'm saying? I've put my heathen days behind me. I'm not going down that path again. Drunkenness, smoking dope, being immoral. But be alert, because your enemy, the evil one, is prowling around like a roaring lion. With these chicks, Miss Kay is seated right beside me. You never sit down with a woman alone. Never, ever."

Then he goes and fills his plate and sits with his family and eats, and it's not long before the talk turns to ducks again and the great coming migration of ducks from north to south.

"We go down every morning starting mid-August, waiting to see the first ones cut the air," Phil says. "When they do, I say, 'Boys, that's the first arrivals from the prairies of Canada. They got Saskatchewan written all over them.' " Willie, Jase, Jep, and Si are chewing and nodding, all of them lit up with happiness over what is yet to come and what has caused so many changes in their lives. "I long for that first sighting," Phil says, and all of them nod just a little bit more.

Contributing editor Erik Hedegaard profiled Gordon Ramsay for the April 2013 issue.

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