Originally published in the December 2, 2013 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
It all just made perfect sense: a Duck Dynasty Christmas album, recorded in Nashville with lots of country guest stars. So the charismatic Robertson clan, stars of A&E’s smash reality show/beard documentary, came to Music City and made Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas, which debuted at No. 1 on the Country Albums chart its first week out with more than 69,000 units sold. It’s cultural saturation working alongside some very savvy business minds. And the album? It’s a ducking (sorry, couldn’t resist) good time.
The Robertson taskmaster and de facto leader Willie runs the family’s Duck Commander duck call business, which might be more accurately described as an “empire” that also encompasses food, merchandising and a deer hunting business, Buck Commander (in conjunction with Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan). Needless to say, the bearded brothers and their spouses stay busy.
“It’s a lot better now than it was probably last year at the this time,” says Willie, calling Country Weekly on break from shooting the show’s next season. “It was kind of unprecedented what happened. The popularity grew so fast, everybody wanted a duck call. I had to crack the whip on the boys,” he adds, laughing. Everything is seemingly a tight-knight family effort. So true to form, Duck the Halls features Willie, wife Korie, daughter Sadie, parents Phil and Kay, kooky Uncle Si, brothers Jase and Jep, their spouses and the whole gang.
As Duck Dynasty reached critical mass, someone brought the idea of an album up to Willie. Being the businessman, he called a booking-agent friend for advice.
“He said, ‘What about a Christmas album?’ I said, ‘Man, I like that,’” recalls Willie. “I didn’t know that my sister in law, Missy—Jase’s wife—was also talking to the agency about doing some music because she’s a singer. Neither one of us knew that we were talking about music but we both were talking at the same time.
They came to the table in Nashville with the concept in hopes of making an audio document that captured their personalities.
“We said, ‘We want it to feel like family. We want it to feel like us. We want it to be funny but also have heart,’” explains Korie Robertson. “We had this variety-show style in mind as far as the layout. We’re really pleased with how it came out.” Sure enough, it runs the gamut between faithful versions of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (sung by Missy) to wacky reinterpretations, like the duck-call-driven title track, and countrified originals like “Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas.”
In the beginning, Willie wasn’t totally sure because the family doesn’t sing professionally. “We love Christmas and like to sing,” he says. “[I] didn’t know exactly how good we were, but I said, ‘Well, we’ll try it.’ It’s just another challenge.” And the country connection came through in the form of guest appearances from Luke Bryan, Josh Turner, Alison Krauss and none other than George Strait himself duetting with Phil on George’s classic “Christmas Cookies.”
“We met him at the ACM Awards and heard that he watched the show,” explains Korie. “It was right after that we started working on the album with [producer] Buddy Cannon. He’s the one w h o suggested [recording] ‘Christmas Cookies, ’ and we were like, ‘Really? Do you think George Strait would do that? ’ He was like, ‘Let’s ask him,’ and we did, and he said yes. I just think that song turned out so good.Willie actually reveals himself to be a decent singer when he takes the lead, as on the Luke Bryan-assisted “Hairy Christmas.” He laughs and says he mostly learned to sing from church and karaoke, but it’s more about what each person brings individually. “There’s different voices and I think it’s just all your attitude and loving to do it,” he muses. “That’s what I see. Not all the singers I like are the best singers quote-unquote in the world. I love the attitude or the charisma or whatever they bring to it. I’ll admit, I was really nervous the first time I got in the studio, mainly because I’d never done it.
But producer Buddy sensed Willie’s anxiety and gave him some good advice to nail his vocal takes. “I’m used to cameras and just being yourself, and really that’s all it was, was just being myself,” Willie recalls. “He said, ‘Just sing it like you would in the truck,’” he laughs, adding, “Alright!”
Additionally, Willie had his first country songwriting experience with “Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Christmas,” a tune he penned with Dallas Davidson. “I thought I may be good at it, wasn’t sure. [I] just didn’t really know how to do it,” he begins. “For me, it was like, how do you start? Do you have the melody? Do you have the words? I just didn’t know. Being around guys like Luke and Dallas that do that all the time, I was so interested to sit down with them. ” Korie doesn’t sing as much lead as Willie, Jase, Missy or the others, but she actually helped arrange some of the tracks. “I don’t have a musical background but that’s kind of what I like,” she explains. “Even on the TV show, I love kind of, behind the scenes, coming up with the ideas and working on things like that and I guess I have a creative part about me. ”
And as you might imagine, actual Christmas with the Robertsons is a big, loud affair. “W e do C hristmas morning at our own houses, each family ,” explains Korie. “T hen we come down there usually around 2 or 3 in the afternoon and do a dinner at P hil and K ay’s house. T hey cook all day long bu t we don’t do a traditional C hristmas meal. W e do C ajun C hristmas: fried shrimp, fried crawfish balls, crawfish etouffee, crawfish pie. I t’s really good. ” But dilly too long and you’ll miss out, she warns. “T he way the R obertsons eat, they don’t wait on anybody ,” she laughs. “T hey start snacking. T hey start making little appetizers and you just kind of eat all the way through and the n you have the big meal at some point. ”
“The difference in us and probably a lot of people is that we are together a lot, year round,” adds Willie. “It’s not like we never see each other. We’re together pretty much every day. So it’s just one more. It’s Christmas, but it’s chaotic and loud. It’s in hunting season, so dad still goes duck hunting on Christmas morning. We’re still hearing tales of what happened that day out in the duck blind. ”
Just like your family, the Robertsons always look forward to the gift-giving portion of the day—particularly the ones that Miss Kay gets everybody. “Kay loves Christmas. She buys presents all year round and just stores them and forgets what she bought and has to go find everything,” says Korie. “It’s just a lot of fun. She actually does gag gifts for us as well that are always hilarious. They’re from her dogs. It’ll be like, ‘To Korie from Bobo’ or ‘From JJ.’ It’s gonna be something funny.”
Willie agrees with his wife’s assessment of the gag gifts, but he’s sensed a pattern in the ones his mother buys him. “I’ve gotten every version of the little fat cook ornament you can get,” he says. “All the kitchen accessories where there’s a little fat guy holding up a pizza, or maybe it’s a knife set with a little fat guy, I always get that guy. I don’t know what she’s trying to tell me.”