Faith, Family, Ducks… and Jesus Politics
One of seven children born to Merritt and James Robertson, Phil Robertson’s story began on April 24, 1946, in Vivian, Louisiana. To suggest the Robertsons were poor is something of an understatement. By any American standard, perhaps worldly, the Robertsons were mired in poverty. Recently I had the good fortune of spending quality time talking to Phil, and he recounted his upbringing quite vividly.
“I have four brothers and two sisters. We traveled light and fast and didn’t wear much for clothes. We all went to school barefoot and were raised in a little log cabin with a fireplace on one end. We didn’t have a commode, tub, or anything like that. Back in those days, we didn’t even have a refrigerator. We had an ice box, and we would put a 25-pound block of ice in there to keep our food from spoiling; in fact, I still call a refrigerator an ice box.”
Phil’s tone remained matter of fact, yet pleasant, as he continued to reminisce. “It was the 1950s, but you know it was like the 1850s, but we really didn’t know any better. We grew up poor, poor, poor but we were happy, happy, happy. We never heard the word poor. It was just living life for us.” Phil paused for a second, then continued, “We lived off the land. We had a milk cow, and my mother churned our milk. We grew our own vegetables, killed a couple of hogs every year, and ate a lot of squirrels and ducks. We were raised with discipline and living off what the Almighty provided. I’ve raised my sons the same way.”
Many celebrities talk about remembering their roots while simultaneously demonstrating how disconnected they really are with red-blooded Americans. Considering Phil’s Duck Commander and Duck Dynasty success, he could have been, perhaps to some extent should have been, but he never was. From accounts of those who know him, and clear in my conversation with Phil, he’s not just in touch, he’s never vacated his roots-of-his-raising place. His rough hands and ridiculously calloused feet speak volumes for heavy toil and a life well lived, for the most part, off the grid—honestly, the life he set out to live early in “new” life.
My pop used to echo the same advice of fathers the world over, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Phil may fit the stereotypical redneck and claim it—long hair, epic beard, barefoot, slang-speaking, gun-toting, etc.—but he’s no dummy. To hear him tell it, he’s at least half intelligent. As a high school football, baseball, and track star, Phil had no problem garnering a scholarship to Louisiana Tech University where he assumed his role as the college’s starting quarterback, and behind him was LTU’s second-string quarterback, Terry Bradshaw; at least, until Phil relinquished the prized position to hunt more ducks and squirrels. Of course, Bradshaw acknowledges he has a lot for which to be thankful!
While Phil only quarterbacked his first season, he completed his bachelor’s degree in physical education and later earned his master’s degree in education. To hear him tell it, he needed that “sheepskin” as something to fall back on if push came to shove. He even taught for a spell, but his heart and soul were outdoors along the Ouachita River. Of course, back then he also had other things to work on—a duck call and himself.
As a young married man, Phil “lived wildly,” and the results were a nearly ruined marriage, including separation, and what Phil discovered just earlier this year, that he had another daughter, Phyllis. Kay remained committed to their marriage through those years, suggesting, “The Devil is controlling him.” Fortunately, at 28, with a newly invented duck call, a marriage well worth saving, and four boys hanging in the balance, Phil committed his life to Christ and was born again, in a spiritually literal sense, into new life. As Phil put it, “I put my old life, my old ways, behind me. Jesus is the way.”
As his story relates to Phyllis, Phil would continue to say his first words upon meeting his new-found daughter in February of this year werem “I had no idea.” He added, “She’s the best thing to come out of my past.” Phil, Kay, and the rest of the Robertsons have fully embraced Phyllis, and she recently relocated to West Monroe. As I write this, she is enjoying her first duck hunt.
Phil grew up with a penchant for duck hunting and learned his skill set as a boy. “I received a Browning A-5 16-gauge shotgun,” he recalls. “It was handed down from son to son, through five brothers, when it became mine. I was 11 when I took that A-5 out myself. I shot three times and brought home two green-winged teals and a pintail hen, and we ate them.” Throughout his childhood, he became acutely aware of various species of ducks and what they sounded like; however, the calls he used left a lot to be desired. He maintains to this day, “Those calls were made for competitors. I wanted a call to kill ducks. I decided one day. I’ll have to build my own.”
The story is well known. “I hunted so much that figuring out duck sounds was like playing piano by ear. I had learned the sounds in my head and wanted to sound exactly like other birds.” Phil did build his own call with the help of a children’s horn set. Soon after, Phil made a request of Kay that would prove to alter life as the Robertson clan knew it. Phil’s voice rose as he recounted the moment to me, “Miss Kay, put me next to the river. I’m going to start fishing, sell them commercially and figure out how to sell this duck call.” And so, they found a spot on the Ouachita River, built that humble home, Phil fished, and sold his catch three times a week and set about on carving his Duck Commander path.
While testing the call on a duck hunt, a good friend suggested, “Call it Duck Commander ‘cause you’re suckin’ ducks out of the air.” He did… and the name stuck. With his Duck Commander call complete, he earned a patent in 1972 on the reed system and overall call. In the same year, Phil also founded Duck Commander, but startup was tough. “Miss Kay and I had three boys. Our first year, we had $8,000 in sales. Things were tight, and I was still selling my fish three times a week. Since then, we had Jep and lots of blessings. Looking back, we did about $13,000 in our second year and $24,000 in our third year. You know what we’re doing now, Kevin?” I hesitated for a second, and Phil answered anyway. “Thirty years later, we’re doing over 1 million calls a year because we trust in God and capitalism.” Who can argue that? As a Christian myself, I wholeheartedly believe in the same.
Phil’s Life Code: A Quick Q&A
Through most of our lengthy conversation, Phil spoke, and I listened. I learned early on to listen twice and speak once—it was reinforced back in my Marine Corps days, and when I have the good fortune to spend time with “graybeards,” I listen intently. Oddly enough, you learn a lot about one’s worldview, ideologies, and foundational values when you just listen—their words, like Phil’s, often weaving a tapestry of character—like eyes, their messaging is a window to their soul. Phil’s character, moral compass, and soul are laid bare in his messaging, be those messages faith, family or ducks. That said, here is a bit more Q&A with the Duck Commander himself:
Kevin Reese: Obviously, your favorite prey is duck. What is your second favorite animal to hunt?
Phil Robertson: Deer. I’m a meat hunter. Of course, I love squirrel hunting, too.
KR: I understand hunting for sustenance, but were conservation or stewardship active messages during your upbringing in the woods?
PR: Sustenance was our thing. I’ve spent more time in the woods and on the water than I can recall doing it the natural way. Hunting natural food sources for the food the Almighty provides. Galatians 4 tells us we are no longer under supervision of old laws and Acts 10 tells us God provides our sustenance. Verses 13 through 15 tell us Peter was told to rise, kill, and eat but he replied, ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice then told him, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ That’s it, Kevin—all the four-footed animals, reptiles, birds in the air… ducks. We have orders from headquarters, my friend. Wack ‘em and stack ‘em.
KR: How old were your kids when you started taking them hunting? How important was it and is it to pass your hunting heritage on to your kids and this next generation?
PR: It’s vital. Especially today. These kids are in trouble. They need God; they need discipline. They need to get off their phones and computers and get outside. We need to teach them our ways, be examples of what it is to trust God and make use of what he provides. I started taking my own kids out observing at about five- or six-years-old and hunting at about eight to 10 years of age. One of the benefits of marrying Miss Kay so young and having our kids young—that was pretty normal back then to get married young—is that now I’m 74, and I’ve spent every bit of over 40 years hunting with all of them.
KR: What is your best piece of advice to kill more ducks?
PR: Don’t call much, but when you do, call on their butts. Call when they’re passing or have passed you by. If they turn back, we don’t call at all. We call a lot less than people might think. It can get pretty quiet. We call when we need to call, no more. Mistakes people make most are calling too much and calling as they’re coming.
KR: What is your favorite meal with duck meat?
PR: Duck wraps with green-wing teals or wood ducks. I like them with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon and cooked for just a few minutes. I also love duck gumbo. You can’t beat Miss Kay’s duck wraps and duck gumbo. (For Miss Kay’s secret duck gumbo recipe, visit hookandbarrel.com/duckgumbo )
KR: What do you make of our American society here and now?
PR: We just finished another book people should read, Jesus Politics: How to Win Back the Soul of America. We’re in trouble. We are in spiritual warfare. Let me tell you something. Acts 17: 26 tells us, from one man, God made all nations and that they should inhabit the whole Earth. There is ONLY one race, the human race. We need Americans to wake up to the spiritual warfare, trust God, and support our president. I’ve talked to President Trump three different times. We’ve talked a lot about faith and the Gospel. He’s never been offended at all, only embraced it. He knows what I know, that Jesus is real and the Son of God. People need to wake up to that. Jesus is the marker of all time. It was BC because of Jesus, and it is AD because of Jesus. How would the entire world mark time to Him if he didn’t exist?
People need to trust him, love Him, and love each other. Right now, I still preach on occasions and when I give bible messages, I have a SWAT team for security and armed guards to protect me. It’s pathetic and sad! Let me tell you something, Kevin. This is an important distinction. Where Jesus is high, crime is low. Remember that.
KR: What are the Robertsons up to now?
PR: We’re still busy, busy, busy. There’s no slowing down Duck Commander. We’re getting ready for duck season, and we’re always busy spreading God’s good word. Yesterday, I came home to find a man just standing at my gate. He had some kind of tether wrapping into his coat. The way he was standing there looked a little suspicious, and I wondered about that tether and what he’s got going on. I had my AR with me in the truck. I’ve got to be careful. I can’t even go to the store without people coming to me. So, I have him turn around to be sure he doesn’t have anything, and then I ask him “What can I do for you?” He said, “I want you to baptize me.” I opened the gate and had him follow me on through. I baptized him in the river and then we all sat down for a nice dinner Miss Kay prepared.
KR: So, you’re actively still baptizing people?
PR: Oh yeah. I baptized that man in the river yesterday and over the past 30 days or so the boys and I have baptized over 100 people in the river.
KR: That’s amazing!
PR: People want free health care; we guide them to free health care in Jesus.
KR: What message would you like to close with?
PR: Two things: First, trust God. Second, I’ll share Phil’s life code: Make it your ambition to live a quiet life. Mind your business so you won’t have to be dependent on anyone.