Deconstructing a “Dynasty”: Phil Robertson’s “Happy, Happy, Happy” Legacy
By Win BassettJune 24, 2013
Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander by Phil Robertson
ALWAYS KEEP YOUR GUN pointed in a safe direction. This is the first lesson my father taught me, wrapping his hulking arms around my upper body to hold a 20-guage shotgun tight to my scrawny shoulder. I was knee-high to a grasshopper. By the time I took the mandatory Virginia Hunter Safety Course, my prepubescent muscles had ingrained this rule into their memory. Toward the sky or toward the ground, and anywhere in between only if I intended to shoot — the tenet had become like riding a bike, brushing my teeth, or parting my hair like my dad’s.
Never pull the trigger unless you know exactly what you’re shooting at. This is the second rule of gun handling I learned, and the emphasis was always on at; when hunting, you’re rarely shooting something, yet you’re always shooting at something. This rule was never emphasized more than on a duck-hunting trip I took with my father and brothers a decade ago. If we killed not a duck but one of the various protected birds that look strikingly like a duck in the early morning fog, we would have found our pockets a few thousand dollars emptier. Or we would have lost our pockets all together when we changed into our jail suits. If it looked like a duck, I had better make sure it quacked like a duck.
I quickly understood this second rule of hunting — don’t pull the trigger until you’re sure of your target — applies to more than locks, stocks, and barrels. Perhaps a rural adaptation of the worn-out “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage, my version was more suited for a child surrounded by Benelli and Winchester rather than Byron and Wordsworth. But a newer translation of this moral lesson has emerged in the past year. And America, from the arm-bearing to the Goethe–reciting, is watching in record numbers. Behind the coverings of self-parody, camouflage, and ZZ Top beards lie calm, yet assertive devotions to family, faith, and passion that have allowed the Robertson family of A&E Network’s Duck Dynasty to live a joy-filled, throwback life in contemporary times — an ideal that becomes more difficult to obtain as the calls for it become louder.
Phil Robertson grew up in a log cabin in the Louisiana woods, where he slept with his three brothers in the same bed and where his family had to kill any meat they wanted to eat, whether it was one of their few chickens, a kinfolk’s cow, or the game they encountered around their house. “It was the 1950s when I was a young boy, but we lived about like it was the 1850s,” he writes, with help from ESPN columnist Mark Schlabach, in his autobiography, Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander.
Robertson played football in high school and earned a full-ride to Louisiana Tech, where he was the starting quarterback ahead of Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw became a four-time Super Bowl champion, Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, and co-host of Fox NFL Sunday. This fact follows Robertson wherever his name appears — in part his doing, in part A&E’s, and in part Bradshaw’s, notes Sports Illustrated:
“The quarterback playing ahead of me, Phil Robertson, loved hunting more than he loved football,” Bradshaw wrote in his autobiography, It’s Only a Game. “He’d come to practice directly from the woods, squirrel tails hanging out of his pockets, duck feathers on his clothes. Clearly he was a fine shot, so no one complained too much.”
Robertson turned down an offer to try out for the Washington Redskins because he’d miss the duck-hunting season each year, and he became a teacher because he’d have more time to hunt in his summers and holidays off from work. Foreshadowing a theme he revisits throughout his life and later passes to his family, Robertson admits, “The only reason I wanted a college degree was so that when people thought I was dumb, I could whip out the sheepskins.” Before he got smart though, he got drunk. And his choosing to embrace a life of yesteryear, or yestercentury, wasn’t as simple and harmless as when his family’s situation forced him to live that way as a child:
[W]e stayed ripped for seven or eight years.
In a lot of ways, I was withdrawing from mainstream society. I was trying to drop back about two centuries to become an eighteenth-century man who relied on hunting and fishing for his livelihood. But I was living in the twentieth century, and everything was constantly changing around me. Hunting and fishing was [sic] no longer a way to provide food for my family’s table; it was a competition between my buddies and me, and all the rules and laws regulating it were thrown out the window.
Robertson quit his teaching job before the school fired him over his drinking habits, and he leased a “honky-tonk” while he and his childhood sweetheart, Miss Kay, raised their three young boys in a trailer attached to the bar. After one night too many of Robertson’s drunkenness and verbal abuse, Miss Kay took the boys and left him. Three months later, she found him in the parking lot of her office building. “I had never seen him cry. The macho man never cried,” she recounts in Happy. “He looked at me and said, ‘I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t do anything. I want my family back.’” A short time later, and with Miss Kay’s help, a local preacher heard Robertson’s confession, baptized him, and had him teaching at a Christian school — all seeds to his family’s last devotion to their faith. But Robertson says his rip-roaring days were not for naught. “Out of all that heathen activity came my expertise for duck hunting and catching fish, as well as my dream to one day build my own duck calls.”
After leaving his teaching job to make more money as a commercial fisherman, Robertson once again attempted to return to the life of his childhood by living off of the land, a situation sought but rarely reached by a wide swath of contemporary America, from Rod Dreher’s crunchy conservatives to creative class liberals promoting localism. With financial support from relatives, Robertson’s family purchased a tract of floodplain. They also bought the accompanying houses and began fishing. Thirty tons of fish caught in the surrounding waters in the first year led to “happy, happy, happy” times, teaching the Robertson’s sons that all of their fortune could come solely from the land, water, and family. But their father became restless. After Robertson’s friends suggested he start his own duck call company (since he relentlessly tinkered with their calls on hunts), Duck Commander took flight. Several thousand duck calls and amateur hunting DVDs later, Robertson landed a television show.
In the opening trailer to the Duck Dynasty series pilot, which first aired in March 2012, one of Robertson’s sons looks straight into the camera and says, “I don’t like meat from the grocery store. It makes me nervous.” While helping Miss Kay film her first cooking instruction DVD in the same episode, Robertson laments, “In America, the art of cooking has dropped to such a low level.” These statements could have just as easily come from the mustached lips of similarly self-parodying urban hipsters on IFC’s Portlandia. But these aren’t your typical backwoods folks; and in fact, they’re not even rednecks. However, on the television show, cooking DVDs, books, and other Duck Dynasty-branded merchandise, they’ll tell you they are.
Robertson writes that he told A&E producers, “You know, you’re dealing with a bunch of rednecks who duck-hunt,” when they pitched him the idea of a reality television show. And family members, especially Robertson’s sons, mention they’re rednecks in approximately every episode. “You can talk any redneck into a challenge. That’s why so many rednecks die in strange ways,” says Willie Robertson after a West Monroe, Louisiana, local dares him to enter a lawnmower-riding race in the second season. The network fuels this caricature by flashing hashtags, like “#riverratcounseling,” across the bottom of the screen when Robertson dispenses a piece of advice — the same quips that form the narrative structure of his autobiography with chapters such as “Great Outdoors: Don’t Let Your Grandkids Grow Up to Be Nerds” and “Family Business: It’s Cheaper to Hire Your Relatives (Unless You Don’t Like ‘Em).”
Outside of the Duck Dynasty-emblazoned world of meat marinades, Yeti coolers, and shirts that say, “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man,” the family will be the first to tell you that’s not them. The New York Times reports:
“When we first met with the production company,” recalled Korie, Willie’s wife, “they had an intern give us kind of a script they had written that was going to look like our show, and it was just so not us. It was like, the wives get up and go chase the varmints; it was just total redneck. That is not us. That’s not the way we live.”
Those with experience of the American South, where popular culture has predominantly placed rednecks, can attest Robertson and his family don’t fit the uneducated, uncouth punch lines of Jeff Foxworthy. And the Duck Commander is far from the closest example of this stereotype I’ve recently witnessed: a sleeveless shirt-wearing guy, slouched in a back seat on a rented pontoon on a lake in Virginia, paying no attention to his visibly upset wife, unable to operate the watercraft, his young children marauding around the motor area without life jackets. Had Duck Dynasty’s producers put the Robertson family in the same situation and turned them loose to live as they normally would (as they do in the “guided reality” method of filming the show), Robertson would be calmly driving the pontoon with Miss Kay and their grandchildren sitting up front, their hair blowing in the wind. Though Robertson’s sons Willie, Jase, and Jep would likely be arguing about their tangled fishing lines, the atmosphere would suggest communion and unconditional love. “Nobody drives us crazy like our own family. They’re odd; they push our buttons; they’re the source of our biggest frustrations but also our greatest joy,” says Jase Robertson at the end of an episode in season one.
Yet despite the Robertson’s family values and visible love for one another, some fans may still have a difficult time seeing the grace beyond the camouflage and guns — lots of guns. The country’s view of arm bearing, while distinct from its perception of rednecks, is another stale typecast. The clan breaks the mold, however, described by Dan Baum in his new book, Gun Guys: A Road Trip. Writing for The New York Review of Books, Georgetown law professor David Cole quotes Baum’s examples of the media’s stereotyping:
Newspaper editorialists called gun owners “a ridiculous minority of airheads,” “a handful of middle-age fat guys with popguns,” and “hicksville cowboys” with “macho” hang-ups. For Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, gun guys were “bumpkins and yeehaws who like to think they are protecting their homes against imagined swarthy marauders desperate to steal their flea-bitten sofas from their rotting front porches.” Mark Morford of SF Gate called female shooters “bored, under-educated, bitter, terrified, badly dressed, pasty, hate-spewin’ suburban white women from lost Midwestern towns with names like Frankenmuth.”
Cole acknowledges, “One in four Democrats has a gun in his home, while 60 percent of Republicans do,” and he lists Baum’s findings of why people own guns, one of which includes, “Some are attracted to the gun as an elegant machine, many of which still work perfectly more than one hundred years after their manufacture.” Notwithstanding the practical use of allowing Robertson and his extended family to put meat on the table (yes, a single table for everyone), he owns guns, in large part, because of their beauty, sophistication, and history. After giving his father all of his wages as a roughneck, Robertson asked him if he could buy his first gun with his last paycheck. “I purchased a 1962 Browning Sweet 16 shotgun for $150 and still have it today,” he writes.
When my parents’ friends or my childhood friends visited our house for the first time, we often opened the den display cabinets, complete with museum-like overhead lighting, to show off the family’s firearms. Some had been handed down from my grandfather and were rarely fired in order to maintain their flawless magnificence. My father kept the guns locked by iron bars within the display case and stored the ammunition at the other end of the house; these weapons had nothing to do with home protection. And I like to think my family, like the Robertsons, were hardly hicks with masculinity issues. “To be honest, our family isn’t much different from other families in America,” writes Roberston. “But I think what separates the Robertsons from a lot of other families is our faith in God and love for each other.”
Robertson devotes almost a third of Happy to discussion of his faith and the role God plays in the success of his family and business life, which are often one and the same. In one chapter, he analogizes the need for forgiveness of his sons’ adolescent mishaps, from alcohol and drugs to reckless driving and breaking hunting equipment, with Luke’s parable of the prodigal son. He greets his eldest child with open arms and a big meal after he returns home, badly beaten by a date’s jealous ex-husband. “My boys might have strayed from God’s path for them at times, but they always had their faith to fall back on,” Robertson writes.
And while he sets aside an entire chapter for his advice to “Share God’s Word,” Robertson isn’t your typical evangelist; or rather, he’s a square peg unfit for the Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell round hole in which unfamiliar viewers would likely try to shove him. He’s a keen student of the Bible, often discussing the text’s application to his life and prescribing a calm faith of love and inclusion fundamentally opposed to dogma of difference and damnation. “[N]o matter how sorry and low-down something might be, everybody’s worth something. But you’re never going to turn them if you’re as evil as they are,” writes Robertson.
Perhaps a better analogy for his theology is that of Will Campbell, who died last month after famously counseling both the Ku Klux Klan and Dr. Martin Luther King. Campbell was known for his tagline, “We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” and like Robertson, he frequently called himself a redneck and disliked the title of “preacher.” One of Robertson’s tales, in fact, sounds like it could come from a page in Campbell’s award-winning book Brother to a Dragonfly:
“I’m standing here under a sign that says, ‘Budweiser is the king of beers,’ and everybody’s got their beers here today,” I told them. “But I’m here to talk about the King of Kings. I know I might look like a preacher, but I’m not. Here’s how you can tell whether someone’s a preacher or not: if he gets up and says some words and passes a hat for you to put money in, that’s a preacher. This is free. This is free of charge, which proves I’m not a preacher.”
His disowning of the divine title, however, doesn’t mean Robertson won’t try to tell you about God, though he does so peacefully and peppers it with the humor of someone who spent a lot of time on the opposite side. And like shedding the sheepskin of a backwoods hillbilly, his faith lands him with another label. “[N]ow it’s gotten to where I’m some kind of nut or Bible beater,” he writes. Robertson says he doesn’t care about this perception of him and instead loves revealing how he and his family prioritize their faith and their business. The depiction of living this hierarchy may contribute to the show’s large audience. “You know there are more people who watch the show who aren’t hunters,” Jase Robertson tells Game & Fish Magazine. “I think that’s because we’ve tapped into human life, which is what we’re about. I mean I love to duck hunt, but I love the Lord a lot more, and I love my wife and kids more than I love to duck hunt.”
The Reverend Fleming Rutledge, one of the first female priests of the Episcopal Church, writes about Will Campbell upon his death, “In spite of his often annoying, self-parodying persona, he was the real thing.” Robertson’s Happy is number one on Publishers Weekly’s hardcover nonfiction bestseller list and number eight on Amazon’s bestselling books list at the time of this writing. Duck Dynasty averaged 8.4 million viewers in its third season, which ended in April, and the season finale drew a network record-breaking 9.6 million viewers for A&E. Not many people seem to find Robertson a nuisance like Campbell, and if they do, it’s likely because they’re not in on the joke that he’s the real thing — a simple family man instead of a reality show redneck with a penchant for blowing up stuff.
“[T]he show always leaves you unclear whether the whole extended family is just pulling your leg,” notes The New York Times. Robertson similarly leaves you feeling like his writing about “yuppies” and the need to find a “pretty country girl who can cook and carries her Bible” only serves the purpose of keeping you reading so that you may stumble upon the true gems of how one family successfully lives ordinary and loving lives not often seen since the times of Robertson’s examples — The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons — and my examples — Home Improvement, Full House, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Jase Robertson, in the same Game & Fish Magazine interview mentioned previously, comments on the chest-length beards he shares with the male adults in his family:
The beard also ties into our spiritual faith, that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s [sic] cover. I don’t look at another human being and look at just their external appearance. Really I think if we looked at another person from the inside out we’d be a lot better off. I like people viewing me one way and then get around me and realize “Man, was I way off.”
Duck Dynasty’s audience increased 95 percent from its second season to its third season. It looks like a lot of America was “way off” until, like Robertson himself, they found faith, family, and passion are the keys to a happy life.
Win Bassett’s essays and interviews have appeared in The Atlantic, the Paris Review Daily, Oxford American, The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. He serves as social media editor for Virginia Quarterly Review. Win lives in Nashville, where he teaches English at a boys’ school.
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