Let’s start with the crossbow, because the crossbow is huge. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a camo-painted ATV, rumbling through the northern Louisiana backwoods with Phil Robertson, founder of the Duck Commander company, patriarch at the heart of A&E’s smash reality hit Duck Dynasty, and my tour guide for the afternoon. There are seat belts in this ATV, but it doesn’t look like they’ve ever been used. Phil is not wearing one. I am not wearing one, because I don’t want Phil to think I’m a pussy. (Too late!) The crossbow—a Barnett model equipped with a steel-tipped four-blade broadhead arrow—is perched on the dash between us. It looks like you could shoot through a goddamn mountain with it.
“That’ll bury up in you and kill you dead,” Phil says.
The bow is cocked and loaded, just in case a deer stumbles in front of us and we need to do a redneck drive-by on the poor bastard, but the safety is on. SAFETY FIRST. Still, Phil warns me, “You don’t want to be bumping that.”
As we drive out into the woods, past a sign that reads parish maintenance ends, Phil is telling me all about the land around us and how the animals are a glorious gift from God and how blowing their heads off is part of His plan for us.
“Look at this,” he says, gesturing to the surrounding wilderness. “The Almighty gave us this. Genesis 9 is where the animals went wild, and God gave them wildness. After the flood, that’s when he made animals wild. Up until that time, everybody was vegetarian. After the flood, he said, ‘I’m giving you everything now. Animals are wild.’”
There’s a fly parked on Phil’s long beard. It’s been there the whole ride, and I desperately want to pluck it out, but I decide against it. Along with the crossbow, there’s a loaded .22-caliber rifle rattling around in the footwell. And yet, much like the 14 million Americans who Nielsen says tune in to Duck Dynasty every week—over 2 million more than the audience for the Breaking Bad finale—I am comfortable here in these woods with Phil and his small cache of deadly weaponry. He is welcoming and gracious. He is a man who preaches the gospel of the outdoors and, to my great envy, practices what he preaches. He spends most of his time out here, daydreaming about what he calls a “pristine earth”: a world where nothing gets in the way of nature or the hunters who lovingly maintain it. No cities. No buildings. No highways.
Oh, and no sinners, too. So here’s where things get a bit uncomfortable. Phil calls himself a Bible-thumper, and holy shit, he thumps that Bible hard enough to ring the bell at a county-fair test of strength. If you watch Duck Dynasty, you can hear plenty of it in the nondenominational supper-table prayer the family recites at the end of every episode, and in the show’s no-cussing, no-blaspheming tone. But there are more things Phil would like to say—“controversial” things, as he puts it to me—that don’t make the cut. (This March, for instance, he told the Christian-oriented Sports Spectrum magazine that he didn’t approve of A&E editing out “in Jesus” from a family prayer scene, even though A&E says that the phrase has been uttered in at least seventeen episodes.)
Out here in these woods, without any cameras around, Phil is free to say what he wants. Maybe a little too free. He’s got lots of thoughts on modern immorality, and there’s no stopping them from rushing out. Like this one:
“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
Perhaps we’ll be needing that seat belt after all.
The Duck Dynasty origin story is the mighty river from which all other Robertson-family stories flow. And it is an awesome story, one that improves the more it is told, so here is my stab at it: Phil Robertson grew up bone poor in the northwest corner of this state—a place where Cajun redneck culture and Ozark redneck culture intersect—to a manic-depressive mother and a roughneck father. He was a star quarterback in high school and earned a scholarship to play at Louisiana Tech, but quit after one season because football interfered with duck-hunting season. The guy who took his roster spot at Tech was Terry Bradshaw, because that’s how these kinds of stories go.
Phil On Growing Up in Pre-Civil-Rights-Era Louisiana
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
According to Phil’s autobiography—a ghostwritten book he says he has never read—he spent his days after Tech doing odd jobs and his evenings getting drunk, chasing tail, and swallowing diet pills and black mollies, a form of medicinal speed. In his midtwenties, already married with three sons, a piss-drunk Robertson kicked his family out of the house. “I’m sick of you,” he told his wife, Kay. But Robertson soon realized the error of his ways, begged Kay to come back, and turned over his life to Jesus Christ.
In 1972, with Jesus at the wheel, Robertson founded the Duck Commander company, which sold a line of custom-made duck-hunting calls that quickly became popular among avid hunters for their uncanny accuracy in replicating the sound of a real duck. He eventually sold half the company to his son Willie, now 41, and together they made a DVD series about the family’s duck hunts, which led to a show on the Outdoor Channel, which led to Duck Dynasty on A&E, which led to everything blowing right the fuck up.
The show—a reality sitcom showcasing the semiscripted high jinks of Phil, his brother “Uncle Si,” his four sons, Alan, Willie, Jase, and Jep, and the perpetually exasperated but always perfectly accessorized Robertson-family ladies—has become the biggest reality-TV hit in the history of cable television, reportedly earning the family a holy shit–worthy $200,000-an-episode paycheck. It’s a funny, family-friendly show, with “skits that we come up with,” as Phil describes the writing process. They plunder beehives. They blow up beaver dams. And when the Robertson-family ladies go up to a rooftop in a hydraulic lift, you just know that lift will “accidentally” get stuck and strand them.