From the Raggio Custom Calls studio in Raymond, Mississippi, Josh Raggio tells Ramsey about his getting into duck call making, about his walking away from a comfortable job in corporate America to chase his dreams. What is it about Raggio’s shop that seems more like an art studio than a typical shop? What are some of the most interesting materials he’s used to make duck calls? Why is each of his duck calls individually unique? And why doesn’t he yet sell CNC versions of his duck calls in catalogs?
The Carving Studio of Raggio Custom Calls
“It turned out good, and it’s not just the wood on the walls. It’s all the signatures.”
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell. Join me here to listen to those conversations. Thank y’all for joining us today for Duck Season Somewhere. I’m in Raymond, Mississippi, on a hot summer day. It’s not hot in here. I’m in the carving studio of Mr. Josh Raggio. Josh, how are you doing today?
Josh Raggio: Good, man. I’m good. I appreciate you coming out.
Ramsey Russell: Now, I always like to come out here. I’ve been to a lot of call carving shops in the past, and this one is just very unique. It does remind me a little bit more of an art studio than a dusty, old, hot carving place.
Josh Raggio: That’s funny you say that, because I hear that a lot. Honestly, Ramsey, when you’ve never been—or maybe when you have been—to a woodworking shop and you walk in, and there’s an inch or two worth of sawdust on the floor and everything is covered in dust— That’s just how it is, a lot of times, in some woodworking shops. I think when people say they’re going to come visit, to see the shop and get a call made, when they walk in, I think that’s what they’re expecting.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, well, that’s what I was expecting. I called you a couple of years ago and wanted to come out here and meet you and get a call—which has become one of my favorite duck calls, now, and I use it—but I was shocked when I walked in. Guys, if you’ve never been to Josh’s shop— You walk in. It’s got a bunch of old calls and memorabilia upfront. You walk in his shop area and it’s got the tools, the basic tools of the trade that you need—the lathe and the drill presses and the saws and vacuums and everything else they use—but it’s lined. What kind of wood is that? Is that pallet wood? What kind of wood have you got this lined up with?
Josh Raggio: It’s pallet wood. I found it, actually, through some buddies of mine, Brooks and Harrison, in North Mississippi. It was like $40 for a trailer load, and it already had the nails out of it, which was a huge deal. Brooks found it, I think, and we bought a lot of it and put it in our old house that we had up there in North Arkansas. I thought, “Man, that’d look really cool in the shop.” So I bought a couple of trailer loads of it. My buddy Edward, you know Edward, I called him. I said, “Hey, man, I’ve got some wood. It’ll be easy. There’s no nails in it. Ride over one day. I’ll go buy a battery-powered nail gun. I’ll make it easy on us.” He said, “Ah, yeah, I’m in.” Well, it’s not quite as easy as it looks. It was about a week-long job to get all that stuff up there.
Ramsey Russell: It turned out good, and it’s not just the wood on the walls. It’s all the signatures. I know that’s a big thing. I know this first wall, up here, when I walked in is just covered. My signature’s up there. There’s a lot of signatures. What’s up with that?
Josh Raggio: Well, I love guitars. I’m not a great guitar player. I’m a strummer. I went to the Gibson Factory one day just to tour it. They were offering tours when it was in Memphis. I went through, and you go down this long hallway before you get into the actual factory part. I’m looking at the wall, and I’m seeing these guitars hanging there from very famous musicians. I’m looking as we’re walking down the hallway, and I’m seeing signatures on the wall from musicians that play Gibson. I thought, “Man, what a cool idea. These guys are leaving their mark on the factory where their instruments are made.” I thought, “What a cool idea.” So when you come to my shop, leave your mark where your instrument—your duck call—was made. Originally I had a guest book, and I did away with that and asked people to start signing the wall. It’s morphed into what it is. Literally running out of space on one wall and kind of having to move over to another spot. It’s probably the favorite part of my shop. I didn’t know what to expect, right? I didn’t know if I’d have five signatures on that wall or ten thousand one day. The way it’s going right now, it’s going to be a lot more than five.
Ramsey Russell: You’ve got a lot of shop in here to fill up with it.
Josh Raggio: Thankfully.
Ramsey Russell: There’s always the ceiling.
Beyond the Call – Building Memories & Relationships
“When I originally wanted to do that, I had no idea of the impact and how profound it would be for me personally.”
Josh Raggio: Yeah. It’s really neat. When I do take a break, I’ll go sit over in my little sitting area to kind of chill out and play the guitar. Every time I go sit down over there, I look over and glance at that wall, and I’ll see a signature and remember. I may see yours, for instance, and it takes me straight back to the first time you came over here and the conversations that we had and then getting to make you call. Then, to think about where all that particular call has been now, that’s the type of memories that it’s made for me. When I originally wanted to do that, I had no idea of the impact and how profound it would be for me personally. It’s just people signing the wall, but it really has had an impact on me, just like I just described with you. How many countries and states? That call has been to a lot of places, and it’s going to a lot more places.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. When I bought the call, I bought it because it was a pretty call and it sounded good. I didn’t think it would end up in my coat pocket everywhere I went. Like I told you when I first talked to you, I’ve been blowing two of the same calls for thirty years. I was talking to B.C. Rogers, yesterday, and a lot of people that might be listening to this podcast see me stepping around and talking to people in the industry, but it’s not about the duck hunting product. It’s about the people. That’s one thing that has shocked me. I’ve traveled around and met so many people, like yourself, in the hunting industry. The relationship is just more important than the product. What I keep seeing, over and over again, is that a lot of these name brands out here are not about— Yes, it’s about a product, you sell a product, but it’s more than that. B.C. was trying to articulate, yesterday, how his product speaks to generations. It’s not just a bag. It picks up memories. You purchase a bag and, down the road, it becomes more to you than just a bag.
Josh Raggio: Correct. Yeah. It’s the same with my calls. You and I had this discussion, on the phone, a few weeks ago; we were talking about your particular call, and I said, “Ramsey, can you imagine, when you hand that call down one day, the stories that are associated with that single duck call?” When you’re in here getting it made, that may have crossed your mind, but it doesn’t cross most people’s minds. Not when you’re watching it get made, and it’s brand new, and you leave with it. About half of them go on a shelf, the other half get hunted. I know that, and I’m okay with either one. I appreciate anybody that’s ordering a call for whatever reason they want it. But to now look back at it— Was that two years ago, now, probably?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Two years.
Josh Raggio: You look back at just your particular call and, like we just said, see where it’s been and the stories that have been built around it with you wearing it. That’s what it’s about. Yeah, I’m sure B.C. did a really good job articulating that, probably better than myself.
Ramsey Russell: He did. He really did, and it surprised me. Having known him and having gotten to know him, I knew— That’s what drew me to record him, same as you. So much of duck hunting—so much of the stuff that we take with us, everyday, duck hunting, to duck camp or wherever—is a lot like a carpenter’s hammer. But it’s not; it’s more than a tool. It’s just those memories. How many nails do you drive? How many houses do you frame with that hammer before, by God, it’s your hammer? Ain’t no other hammer going to substitute. My shotguns aren’t anything special. They’re the same as your shotgun. If you’ve got the same make and model, it’s just right off the shelf, right? Boom, Benelli Super Black Eagle 3, Benelli M1, whatever. But it’s my gun.
Josh Raggio: But it is special.
Ramsey Russell: My grandfather’s Remington 1100 is just like millions of others, but it was his gun, and it was my gun. It takes on this aura beyond the product.
You Need a Hammer to Build a Call?!
“So as opposed to going to a department store and buying one, I bought one from my buddy Ben just because of what it could potentially mean, from an heirloom situation, down the road.”
Josh Raggio: Absolutely. It’s funny you mentioned hammers because—I’ll tell this quick story—I use two hammers in my shop when I build calls. You wonder why you need a hammer to build a call, and I’ll tell you. When you put a band on a call, some guys glue them. I press fit and pin my bands on. The last thing I want to do is have a band fall off. I’d rather a call break in half than a band fall off, so I pin my bands on. There’s three pins. I sand them down. Sometimes, you can maybe see where they are; most of the time, you can’t. I use two hammers for that. One was my great-grandfather’s hammer—it’s actually a horseshoe hammer—and he made the handle, and he had to wrap string around it—he had some slack in it—to get the hammer head to stay on it. Obviously, that one’s special. There’s no telling how old it is, actually. I use that one some, but then I purchased a hammer, about four years ago, from a buddy of mine, Ben Napier, who has the show on HGTV. He and I have gotten to be good friends, and he was selling a hammer that had a leather handle. The idea behind that leather handle was that, eventually, your handprint will somewhat form in that leather. Then, it becomes an heirloom. So my son or daughter will get that hammer one day. When I’m long gone, they can grab the handle of that hammer, and they’re holding their daddy’s handprint.
Ramsey Russell: That’s pretty cool.
Josh Raggio: That’s going to take a while, because I’m not a carpenter. I’m not sweating in it and beating on roofs all day with it. But the thought of that, to me, was really neat. So as opposed to going to a department store and buying one, I bought one from my buddy Ben just because of what it could potentially mean, from an heirloom situation, down the road. Much like a duck call or one of B.C.’s bags or a gun. For me, in the shop, it’s that hammer.
The Secret of the Studio
“But, yeah, it sounds weird, but it kind of sets the mood for what I’m about to do all day.”
Ramsey Russell: Now that I’m traveling a little bit and not just talking on the phone, you’re close enough—thirty minutes down the road—that we can meet personally. It’s just like every other time I walk in here, it’s the ambience. You’ve got the mood lighting set up in here. You’ve got one light over where you’re working; you’ve got a light in the corner on the drill; everything else is just dark and moody. I come in. From outside the door, I can hear you working your wood. I can hear the wood splintering. I can hear the blues playing on your iPhone. It’s just a little ambience, and that’s why I wanted to set the stage and kind of welcome the listener into the ambience of what I call a studio, not a shop. I think of it like that.
Josh Raggio: That’s interesting you said that because I—personally, honestly—have never heard anyone else refer to it as that, and I haven’t thought of it as that, as a studio as opposed to a shop. I’ve always referred to it as “the shop.” But when you walked in, that’s kind of the feel that you got. When you walked in, what you just described, is really how I turn every day. Artists, we’re just weird. We’re weird in our own ways. I kind of have my day-to-day setting in the shop. I don’t like all these bright overhead lights. Obviously, I need enough light to see. But, yeah, it sounds weird, but it kind of sets the mood for what I’m about to do all day. It’s very calming. It’s very peaceful. The vacs are kind of loud, but typically I’m wearing sound suppression headphones. I listen to anything from blues to country to podcasts to Fox News to whatever, throughout the day. For me, it’s a very peaceful setting to be able to work in, day in and day out.
The Art of a One-of-a-Kind Call
“The mystique of what that single piece of wood is going to look like once it’s turned, what the character’s going to be, what the figure’s going to be; that’s what does it for me, from the turning standpoint.”
Ramsey Russell: And it’s focused. I’ve found with my own self, when I work, if I’m writing—especially creatively, I’m not a writer per se—that it takes a lot of focus and attention for me to articulate what I want to communicate. I find myself working best at night with just the light of the computer and maybe a lamp on. That’s it. Now, the whole world is limited to just my desktop, right where I’m working. I’m hyper-focused on that moment. That’s kind of how I feel when I walk into your shop. It’s funny you use the word “artist,” because that’s how I see you. I’ll tell you this: I’ve got a desk drawer full of calls, shelves full of calls, pockets full of calls, and calls just everywhere I look. I love them. God, I love calls. I’ve got a hard and fast rule, because people will send calls sometimes. I’ve got a hard and fast rule: use it. Every single call, I’m going to go out and hunt with. I’m either going to love it, or I’m going to hate it, and some I’m going to love more. The first call I ever had—I know I’ve had this discussion with you—was made by a man named Alvin Taylor up in Clarendon, Arkansas. He turned every one. I blew it—just a little $50 bois d’arc call—and I loved that call. I still take it out some, even though I know I shouldn’t. I’ve got a half dozen of his calls left. I used to tell my buddies in college who wanted to get a call, “Well, you’ve got to drive to Clarendon.” They’d say, “Ah, well, I don’t—” I’d say, “Nope. You’ve got to drive to Clarendon, because he doesn’t know you and he makes these calls from scratch. Every soundboard, every call, was turned from scratch. Sometimes, it’s a boo-boo.”
Josh Raggio: It doesn’t work out.
Ramsey Russell: He doesn’t know you. If you don’t care any more about your call than just to call him over the phone, he might send you that call. A couple of those buddies got that call, but I said, “No, because if you would go up there and line up, he might have fifty bois d’arc calls, and you’d sample every one of them till you found one and went, ‘Oh, boy, that hits me just right.’” When I called you a couple of years ago and said, “Hey, I’m interested in one of your calls,” you insisted that I come over here. I’m like, “Well, it’s thirty minutes away.” Man, you just insisted. I had to. So I was just going to come over here and meet you. “Walk me through the process, because you’ve got all these piles of different woods and different grains in similar woods.” It starts with that one block. “I’d like this piece of wood.” Then I sat here and drank a cold beer and watched you turn my call. My one-of-a-kind call.
Josh Raggio: It’s just yours.
Ramsey Russell: But every single client that has a Raggio call has a one-of-a-kind call.
Josh Raggio: They do. So a little bit about the process. If you’ve been to the shop, you’ve seen all the wood blanks that I have. I actually buy individual wood blanks. Six inches, twelve inches, whatever it is. For the people that do live close or can come visit, it’s a pretty big advantage. You can come look through everything I’ve got. You can pick out, “That blank. That’s the one.” Even though it’s square, what keeps it interesting and fun, for me, is the mystery of, “When I turn it round, what’s it going to look like?” If I knew what every one was going to look like, I probably couldn’t do this every day. I’ll be honest with you. It’d be boring. The mystique of what that single piece of wood is going to look like once it’s turned, what the character’s going to be, what the figure’s going to be; that’s what does it for me, from the turning standpoint. So you come in, and you pick your wood blank, and we get started. I do a little cutting, some drilling, and then we start turning. You have some band options. You can pick some different bands. Then it gets to the real deal: that insert. We start talking volume and back pressure and duck call terms, right? If you’re not familiar with them, I try to walk you through what they mean. “What call are you blowing now?” If you can bring it, I can blow it, and, while my call is different from everybody else’s, I can kind of get a feel, or a sense, of what you like in your call. “Why do you like that call?” from all those things we just discussed. So I’m going to cut it. I’m going to drill it, cut it, and then we’re going to sit right there and tune it until you’re happy. Hopefully, when you leave, it goes on your lanyard.
Why Not Follow the Mass-Production Business Model?
“We ain’t going to be millionaires making duck calls by hand, but there’s a sense of peace that it brings to me, internally, just loving what I do every day.”
Ramsey Russell: We walked all the way through the process of the barrel and the insert and choosing the band that went on it, and I’m glad I got the decorative one. Then we sat there at your bench and nipped and tucked on the reed until it hit it just right. I don’t know. It’s funny how I got a new call, I’m going to take it out hunting, and it might be the best call I ever had— But it might end up in the desk drawer. But it didn’t. David Gasol—who you might know, in Alabama—was a protégé, of sorts, of Alvin Taylor’s. His calls really are very, very good, the closest thing I’ve found to Mr. Taylor’s calls. Not on all of them, but on some of them, he puts the Coca-Cola bottle lip on the top, and you can just tell the influence of it, if you’re into that kind of stuff. I do use his a lot, because I just like that buzz, but then I’ve always, now, got my Raggio call. This ain’t a sales pitch for you. I’m just telling you, because duck calls are a very personal thing. Here’s a question I’ve got for you. A normal arc of a call maker would be that they duck hunted, they got interested in call making, they maybe competed, they maybe won some championships, they went to the shop, they figured it out, they customized and got the jig just right, they got the sounding board just right, and, by God, they got their call. I know there’s a lot of guys that just buy store-bought inserts and put them in a barrel, and that’s their deal. But you don’t. You turn out each one. Then, after they get to that point, everybody likes them, so what do they do? They get them over to a machine that replicates them by the millions, and they start selling them. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve got a bunch of calls I love that are like that. I love them. But there’s something that speaks to me, personally, that this call is one-of-a-kind. It’s one-of-an-absolute-kind. Here’s my question. After saying all that, here’s my question. Why don’t you follow that trajectory?
Josh Raggio: Well, I haven’t ruled it out. Is that fair to say? But here’s how I look at it. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that I went that direction. I would never quit hand-turning duck calls. We’re in year seven or eight now. It took me a while to figure out that I even could make a duck call and that I actually enjoyed it enough to quit my corporate job and do it for a living. A lot of people said, “You’re crazy. You’re an idiot. What are you thinking?” Because I had a great job. I had the job that everybody wanted in the equipment industry, at Caterpillar, and gave it all up to come make duck calls by hand. I say that to say, that’s how much I love it. I will never quit hand-turning duck calls, I don’t think. I don’t foresee that. I just love it too much. Just like you love to duck hunt. Would you quit duck hunting? Probably not. But from an artistic standpoint—or an artistry, artist type standpoint—artists paint originals, and that original may be ten grand. Well, not everybody can get an original. There’s only so many. However, there’s prints of that original that may be $100. It’s still a painting, but you know, going into it, that it’s a print of an original. If I ever went into that direction, I would still hand-turn calls—the originals, right? Just like an artist would hand-paint an original. The other calls may be more like a print. It’s based on an original, but it makes them more readily available to people. Right now, you’ve got to wait a year, two years, to get a call? I don’t like that. It’s my business model because I just can’t spit them out. It’s a process, and it just takes time. I would love to put calls in everybody’s hands that wants one, tomorrow. Physically, I can’t do that. If I went that direction, that would allow people to have a call. It would be acrylic like they all are. But that’s way, way down the line, if it was to ever happen. I love what I do right now. Hand-turning calls is kind of my niche. I understand why guys do it. Like I said, I’m not ruling it out, but, right now, I just love to sit here and make duck calls. We ain’t getting rich. We ain’t going to be millionaires making duck calls by hand, but there’s a sense of peace that it brings to me, internally, just loving what I do every day. I’m able to put food on our table. We pay our bills. We’re okay. It’s not money I’m chasing, obviously. It’s the pursuit of a happiness and a peacefulness that you can get only when you absolutely love what you do and when the motivations are that when you go into it. In making that decision to quit the corporate world to go into this— We have a three year old and an eight year old, and I preach to them pretty hard about doing what, in the future, is going to bring you the most peace and happiness. It’s not about money. If they looked at me in fifteen years or less—my eight year old hits college in ten years—and is trying to decide what she’s going to do, if she goes to college or whatever— She’s going to look at Daddy and go, “Well, Daddy, you told me to follow my dreams and my heart, but you’re miserable in this corporate job right now. Why didn’t you follow your dreams and your heart?” How could I answer that? It’s like, “Well, baby, I didn’t. I wish I would have quit and turned duck calls for a living.” Well, so when I made that decision, that was part of it. If I’m going to preach it, I better also do it.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. I’ve got a lot of clients that really don’t like what they do. They’re making money. Some of them love what they do. Just my personal history— I feel so blessed. Not because I’m getting rich. Boy, you don’t do what I do and get rich, but I’m making a living. More importantly, I’ve made a hell of a life for myself. That’s what’s very important. I see it in my family. I see it in my children as they get older. Now, look, just because you like what you do, Josh—and maybe you’re the exception, but—that doesn’t mean there’s not going to be some tough times. There’s stress in everything you do because it’s a little four letter word called W-O-R-K, and it’s not always pretty. But, overall, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. I guess you’re saying the same thing.
Josh Raggio: Yeah, I’m not the exception. I have bad days, I have bad weeks, I have bad months. I started doing this kind of Instagram Live on Tuesday nights where I have a guest and we talk. Even through my posts, through social media, recently— I’ll just flat-out admit that May was a tough month for me. Mentally, I don’t want to say I was burned out, but it was not as easy to come out last month, for whatever reason, and just grind for eight or ten hours a day. I did it, but it was just one of those months, one of those weeks. I don’t want people to think that I live in this fantasy world where every day is sunshine and rainbows and roses, because it ain’t. Things go wrong on that lathe. There is nothing more frustrating than spending $100 on a six inch piece of wood and it blowing up on you. I can’t control that, and it happens.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I guess you spent hours, getting down to the last little minute, and something goes wrong— What are you going to do?
Josh Raggio: What’s the one thing in life you can’t get back? Time. I just spent two to three to four hours on something, and it’s going in the junk drawer. That’s frustrating, but it’s part of it. I get it, and I accept it. But you’re right. I love what I do, you love what you do, but we have down times. We have times where we’re like, “Man, I just really don’t want to do this right now.” I’m not the exception. My life is not that perfect.
Raggio’s Road to Becoming a Duck Call Artist
“It’s a lifetime of waterfowling that started with my dad.”
Ramsey Russell: I know you’ve told your process of how you got here from there, and I know hunting with your dad is very important to you, I’d like to speak to you about that some, but how did you go from a little boy hunting with your daddy to a duck call artist? How do you do that? Do you remember a time when something just snapped and triggered you into doing it?
Josh Raggio: Yeah. I’ll give you the short answer. It’s a lifetime of waterfowling that started with my dad. Actually, my first really nice call was an Alvin Taylor also, by the way. I got it when I was twelve at the World’s. That would have been 1992, ‘93. Alvin was still alive. Obviously, he had a booth set up. My dad and I were going through the call tent and blowing calls, and I picked out a cedar Alvin Taylor. I share that with you, my first call being an Alvin Taylor. He got me into hunting—into waterfowling, specifically—at an early age, as soon as I could go, basically, and I really enjoyed it. I don’t know why, because everything was too big. They didn’t make kids’ clothes back then. I froze my tail off, but, somehow, I still enjoyed it. As you get into high school and college, where you can start going on your own a little bit and getting clothes that fit, and chase them on public land, that’s what I did. Then I got into the comp calling stuff through my dad, because he was a comp caller. Then I started directing contests, Mississippi state and regional contests. So I was just around it all the time. But what he loved about waterfowling was the calling. He didn’t have to take a gun. He’d have more fun than anybody shooting that day because he got to take a duck call and watch ducks work. That’s kind of how I learned. That was kind of my base. So, early on, I appreciated different things than other people appreciate about waterfowling. Typically, that’s a maturation process. You enjoy shooting and killing limits and this, that, and the other— Well, I learned to enjoy some of the other parts of it early, thankfully. I’m very grateful to him for teaching me that. When I got into my late twenties, maybe early thirties, a mutual friend of ours, Justin Harrison, had started— Justin and I had met a few years before that, training dogs, and he lived about five miles from me at the time. I was living out kind of where you live now. He called me and said, “Hey, I’m kind of making my own duck calls, trying to figure this thing out. I’ve made one. Would you mind coming and blowing it and kind of critiquing it for me, basically?” Because that was still in my comp calling days. Said, “Yeah, I’d be glad to.” I went over there and, for some reason, I was just— He didn’t turn it in front of me. It was already made. But I walked through his garage, and I saw his lathe, and there’s just sawdust everywhere. It kind of caught my eye. I went inside, and he’s got some calls laid out. I blew one, and I just thought it was the coolest thing that he had made his own duck call from scratch. From a block of wood. When I left that night, something just clicked in my head. “I’m going to do that one day.” Justin is still kind of a mentor to me. He carves his own decoys, trains his own dog, makes his own duck call. He’s just that guy.
Ramsey Russell: He is. Made his own beer, one time. That’s the funniest thread I ever read on the internet, because he was letting them ferment in the case. They came in, and they all blew up. The cap went off, and he had beer on the ceiling and everywhere else. That’s just Justin.
Josh Raggio: That’s Justin. I love him to death. But him inviting me that day— He didn’t know that was going to happen. I didn’t know that was going to happen, but I left with that little ping in my mind. “Man, I’ve got to do that one day. That sounds like the ultimate accomplishment: to make your own duck call, take it out in the woods, and kill ducks with it.” So I left that day, and it took a year or two as I started to amass the tooling. You just don’t run to Home Depot and buy everything you need to make a duck call. That’s not how it works. I’ve learned that the hard way. There’s all kinds of tooling that you’ve got to have, different things to make a call with. Then getting into the toneboard is a whole nother deal, developing your own toneboard. I started with a flat jig. I never planned on selling a duck call. I wanted to make my own. I wanted to call it my own, and that toneboard is your duck call. The shape is, too. That’s how you recognize it and all that, but that toneboard is your call. So I ordered a flat jig, and I started filing and shaving and turning. That was horrible. I had never turned a lathe on.
Ramsey Russell: Some people never figure it out. I have blown some calls, not too far from here. Another mutual friend of ours has been fooling at it for years and still ain’t got his toneboard. That’s the science of it all.
Chasing the Dream: Turning a Passion Into a Business
“I just felt a calling to do something else that would probably—I thought at the time, and it’s proven to be true—give me a better feeling of what I was truly put here to do.”
Josh Raggio: It is. And being able to blow a duck call, that certainly helps if you want to make a duck call. I had that to my advantage because I’d been doing it for a long time. I was proficient on a duck call. My buddy Ryan Barrett came over. He had made calls in the past, and I kind of showed him what I had. We pieced one together with what I had. After that, I was kind of just off and running. It was such a passion of mine. I’d work all day. I’d get home, eat supper. At that time, we only had one child. She was a baby. Working in the garage—not this shop, it was at our old house—I’d turn wood until midnight, one o’clock. But I had to go in my truck to blow it, because I didn’t want to wake the neighbors up, couldn’t wake the baby up, couldn’t wake my wife up. I just had that fire for it. I was that determined to come up with a great sounding call just, honestly, for myself. And I wanted to make Dad one, and a couple of buddies. Well, it finally happened. It was months. It was months of just frustration and figuring this thing out. In that first year, once I got my toneboard, I started making calls, and an email came across my desk one day about Garden & Gun magazine having this Made in the South awards thing. I usually don’t look at that kind of stuff, but I looked at it like, “Eh, this may be pretty cool. Maybe I should just send some pictures in and see what happens.” So I did. Well, dang, in the first year I got featured in Garden & Gun magazine, which is worldwide. Not knowing it was going to make me a business, I was pretty much a business, at that point, when you’re featured in something like that. I really wasn’t ready for it, but it happened.
Ramsey Russell: Ready or not, here you come.
Josh Raggio: Yeah. Then, the same year, a good friend of mine, Seth Fields, got ahold of one of my calls and blew it, in Maryland, in the World Live Duck and finished in the top five. They’re like, “What kind of call are you blowing?” “Raggio.” Nobody knows how to pronounce my name. Said, “Who is that?” Well, so in the first year, you’ve got one at the top five at the World Live Duck, one in Garden & Gun magazine, and some other things happened. Basically, it was a lot of right places, right times, and right people. The next thing you know, you’re a business. I ran it as a second business/hobby for five years until I resigned from Caterpillar, and now it’s what I do everyday. That’s how it started.
Ramsey Russell: What was it like walking away from a career to chase this dream? I remember the day I did it. How did you feel? How long did you think about it?
Josh Raggio: For probably two years, it was on my mind. That last year before I resigned, it was really heavy on my mind. It was a weight on my shoulders. I knew I was supposed to do it; it was just getting the guts to do it. I needed some things to happen to push me over the edge. It was a topic of discussion in our Sunday school class once a month. I’d bring it up, “I’m feeling all this, and I feel like I’ve got this calling. I’m supposed to do this, but, man, I’ve got a family. How am I going to feed them?”
Ramsey Russell: Insurance, yeah, all that stuff.
Josh Raggio: What if people don’t buy calls? There’s a lot of “what if’s.” The fear, right? I really, honestly was just praying like, “God, give me a sign. Hit me in the face with some bricks when it’s time.” Essentially, that kind of happened through the corporate world. Some things somewhat transpired that just— I knew it was the right time. It was like, “I’ve been praying for a sign. Here’s your sign.” Things that I could have worked through, and all that, and continued in that direction in my life, but it was just time. It was never a secret. It was never something I hid from my employer at the time. They bought duck calls from me for customers. But it was just time, and I knew it. I called a family meeting—meaning my wife, my parents, my sister—and told them, “Here’s what I think we’re about to do.” We put pen to paper, and, a week later, I turned in a letter of resignation. Three months later— I stayed on for a while just to help them hire somebody else and make that transition as seamless and easy as possible for the company. They had given me twelve years, just like I’d given them twelve years. They were mighty good to me, and so I didn’t want to just quit and leave them hanging. I did everything I could to make sure that transition happened very smoothly, and it did. It just worked out for everybody. But it was a lot of fear, man. A lot of fear. Everybody thinks insurance, insurance, and that was a big deal. It’s a huge check that I cut every month for private health insurance for four of us. Truck notes, now, and gas. There were a lot of scary things, but now that I look back at them, I don’t even think twice about it.
Ramsey Russell: Leaving the federal government was the hardest thing I ever did, but I hated that job. I hated it. It wasn’t me. It just wasn’t me, and I hated it. It was like swallowing sunshine. The day I said, “I’m out of here,” and he went, “Well, what do you mean you’re out of here?” I go, “I quit.” I drove home and it’s like I swallowed sunshine and the world changed. I felt like me again.
Josh Raggio: I guess that’s the difference in our situations. I didn’t hate my job, by any stretch of the imagination. I just felt a calling to do something else that would probably—I thought at the time, and it’s proven to be true—give me a better feeling of what I was truly put here to do. But, honestly, the timing was right. People ask me all the time, “Would you have quit sooner?” Absolutely not. I learned more in those eleven or twelve years in the corporate world, because I was in sales and I dealt with people every day. It taught me how to deal with issues, how to deal with problems, and how to deal with people. It taught me how to run a business, essentially. A lot of those skills, I transfer now to what I do on a daily basis. So the timing, it just all works out. I wasn’t supposed to be a duck call maker at age 21. I just wasn’t. It was age 31, and I wouldn’t trade those years of those other jobs for anything.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. It was a growing process for me, too, and it was a beneficial process, but it was just time. I just learned, when I was about your age, that all those bad bosses I had really weren’t bad bosses. They just had a terrible employee, because I’m just not meant to work under somebody’s thumb like the federal government requires. That’s just not me. I found out that I work harder for myself than I ever did working for the gov. There’s a nut to crack. I’m willing to work harder, and I motivate myself. My family’s at stake. It’s a whole different drama. All that fear I felt initially— I don’t know why I felt it. Looking back, I’m like, what the heck? It wasn’t worth being scared over.
Josh Raggio: I was very fortunate. The bosses that I had were phenomenal people. They weren’t micromanagers. They trusted that you were going to do your job and that you were going to do it well. Even now, I still talk to those guys. They root for me, man. They saw the passion I had for this, and that’s the type of people that I work for. They want me to succeed just as bad as they want to succeed in their businesses. I was very, very fortunate to work for people like that leading up to, now, working for myself.
The Raggio Studio on Wheels
“I get to hunt in the mornings, and then I’ll make duck calls all afternoon and all night for those guys.”
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. One thing I recognized is that we hunt together in Arkansas, some, and things like that, but you never go anywhere without pulling your mobile shop. I’m not aware of any other duck callers that do that. You take this shop, or this studio, and you put it in a trailer in another version. Everywhere I’ve been, there’s a crowd in the afternoons, after we’re duck hunting, around the Raggio studio on wheels.
Josh Raggio: The mobile shop. It’s the only one in the country that I’m aware of. I’m sure there will be one popping up, you know how that works. Yeah, I work almost 365 days a year.
Ramsey Russell: The joys of small business ownership, right?
Josh Raggio: That’s how it works. So to be able to combine my work with the ability to go duck hunting is pretty unique. Basically, these private camps hired me to come. I’ll stay for a certain amount of days and make X amount of calls. But I tell them on the front end, “I’m there to make your calls. I don’t have to hunt.” But they always invite me to hunt, and I’ve made some of the greatest friends through that mobile shop. I’m very fortunate. I get to hunt in the mornings, and then I’ll make duck calls all afternoon and all night for those guys. You get that enjoyable sense of getting away and hunting, but then also get to work in the afternoons. I say “get to work” because I really appreciate it. It’s not, “I have to work,” it’s, “I get to do what I love to do in a little different setting.” Guys will grab a drink and come in the shop and hang out and watch, pick out their wood just like you did in here. It’s the same experience that you get, if you come to this shop, in the mobile shop. Being able to do that and, when you hand that guy that call, see the expression on his face— That’s why I do it. Not many people have actually seen a call start from a square block of wood, by hand, into a finished product. To be able to go offer that is very rewarding for me.
Ramsey Russell: I describe your calls as functional art. That’s how your product speaks to me. Speaking of materials, cocobola— What are some of the woods you use? I follow you on Instagram, and I see all kinds of crazy stuff.
The Unique Materials of Raggio Custom Calls
“What are some of the most interesting woods, or wood sources, people have brought you to carve?”
Josh Raggio: It is. Golly. Cocobola, blackwood, those are going to be the two main ones for sound purposes. When I say that, I mean that I either make a full cocobola call or a full blackwood call. When you see the burls in some of the crazy-looking woods that have all the figure in them and that type— Maybe a color. They put dye in woods, now, when they stabilize it. The toneboard is still going to be blackwood or cocobola. That’s for sound purposes. The other is aesthetic. I use a number of burls. On the work table, right now, there’s buckeye burl, boya burl, box elder burl, then cocobola, blackwood, some that I’ve tipped. A blackwood call that’s tipped with box elder burl on both ends. Just the maple burls. It’s crazy what you can find out there now that there’s a process called stabilization where they can make this wood hard enough to turn and not just blow up on your lathe. Some of the woods that I can use are spectacular. The finished product is aesthetically, and then, internally, the sound hopefully is as well because it’s blackwood or cocobola.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the most interesting woods, or wood sources, people have brought you to carve?
Josh Raggio: I turned a call out of a mammoth tooth. Single hardest call. Will never, ever do it again, so don’t ask. Don’t call and ask for a mammoth tooth call.
Ramsey Russell: Boy, if it splintered at the last minute, we’d have problems.
Josh Raggio: It wasn’t splintering. It was literally like me going and cutting a piece of concrete out of my driveway and turning it. It was the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life, aside from aluminum. Aluminum is horrible. Turned some brass. That fordite stuff. Fordite, another name for it is Detroit agate. What it is, is when you paint a car, you get some drips and residual paint that drips down to the bottom of the paint booth. Eventually, they’ve got to go in and chip all that out to clean out a paint booth. Well, I’ve got blanks that have the fordite in it, and you can see the different layers of colors.
Ramsey Russell: Is that Ford or Chevrolet?
Josh Raggio: Oh, this is actually from the Corvette factory. I can tell you they painted a red one, a white one, a black one, and another red one, in the layers of the paint. I can tell you exactly what they did that day. They’re pieces of that poured into an Alumilite blank, and they’re not real fun to turn, either. But they’re really cool. They’re novelty type pieces.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I noticed that, in the front, you’ve got some baseball bats. What’s up with that?
Josh Raggio: Yeah. My buddy Scott Rowe was, I think, the first to ask. He made a post one day that said, “This is the next duck call blank. This whole bat.” Then he called me and said, “Hey, would you turn this thing into a duck call for me?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll try. I ain’t never done it before, but I’ll try.” So he sent it to me, and we did it. It turned out pretty cool. It was a bat from his college days, like summer ball days. Then my buddy Dave Chorley, who owns Upper Duck, was friends with Mark Buehrle, who was a Hall of Fame pitcher, and Mike Matheny, who was coaching for the Cardinals. So Dave said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for this MLB bat stuff.” He’s like, “I’m going to get you a bat from these guys. Would you turn it?” I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” So Scott started the bat stuff, and then Dave started the MLB bat stuff. It’s turned into some really great friendships. Some guys that are still playing, some guys that are retired. I get quite a few of those guys who will see it somehow, or hear about it from a teammate or something, and they’ll call and say, “I’ve got a bat. Would you kind of do the same thing?” It’s just kind of morphed into this thing that, again, got to give credit where credit’s due, to Scott and Dave. Those guys got that ball rolling. It wasn’t me. Yeah. To be able to turn some professional baseball players’ bats into calls has been really fun.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t think there’s a right thing or a wrong thing that people can wear or look like. I’m not a fashionista in the duck blind, by any means. It may be just my age, but I feel a little old-school. I like some of that old-school feel. I think that’s why hand-turned products, like yours or something like B.C. Rogers or Filson, some of these brands, these quality, practical great brands— Josh, I just noticed, looking around your shop, that you’ve got hand-carved decoys, hand-carved calls. I know from hunting with you that you dress like my granddad did, maybe. Why?
Josh Raggio: I take that as a compliment, actually.
Ramsey Russell: No, it is. It really is. It means a lot to me. I mean. Those connections, like B.C. and I were talking about yesterday. But why? What is it in your past? Something from your past—growing up as a little boy, growing up with your daddy, growing up with some of his friends, growing up in that environment—has projected itself into now. Why somebody hunts is their business. I support them. There’s different stages and phases. To start off, you’re just a freaking killer, and then you start to mellow out, and you become more about other things. I’ve hunted with you enough to know that it’s more of a quality pursuit than a quantity. I’m just wondering, what in your background led you to that? Maybe I’m having a hard time asking this question.
Daring the be Different
“When you get comfortable in who you are and what you stand for and what you do, then it really doesn’t matter.”
Josh Raggio: I get what you’re asking. I don’t know that I have an answer for that. It’s kind of like making your own duck call and going hunting with it. That’s not easy. That’s a chore. I don’t want to say that I like to make things hard on myself. That’s not what I’m saying. I appreciate the way the other generations did it before us.
Ramsey Russell: Simply.
Josh Raggio: Yeah. I shot a .410 this year, all year. It wasn’t just a sub-gauge hunt. I shot a .410 all year, this year. Not to necessarily make it hard on myself. It wasn’t a “hey, look at me” type deal. I never want to be perceived as that. It was a challenge. I see, with TSS, these guys shooting turkeys at forty or fifty yards with .410’s. Well, hell, why can’t I do that with a duck gun? That was the coolest project we did last year, laying those ducks. Eric Guggenheim, those guitars and lake ducks, and the .410. Apex got me the ammo. A girl in Nevada made me the gun sling. It was a collaborative project to just see, “Can we go shoot ducks with a .410, day in and day out?” And you can. I can attest to it. It can happen. Then, I’ve always been a Filson fan. I love what they stand for from a quality aspect. When you buy a Filson jacket, you are going to hand it down to two or three generations. I appreciate that type of brand and to be partnered with them, making calls for them, a batch a year. That’s led to some really cool things. I don’t know. I think part of it is, again, just kind of being weird and not wanting to be like everybody else. Not just to stand out, but just like, “Man, I’m my own person. I have my own thoughts. If I want to wear a green jacket instead of this other jacket, I’m just going to put on a green jacket.” I catch a lot of flack for it from my buddies, which is fine. I’ve got thick skin. It is what it is.
Ramsey Russell: I am who I am.
Josh Raggio: Exactly. I just enjoy the challenge of it, of just being a little bit different.
Ramsey Russell: Being individual.
Josh Raggio: Being individual. Even some of the cards that I have, that go with the calls when I send them out— At the bottom of it, it says “Dare to be Different.” I don’t want to say, “Why would you want to be like everybody else and follow the crowd?” I was for a long time. If everybody wore a polo shirt; by God, I wanted a polo shirt, too. Well, as you get older and mature and realize that we’re all individuals and we all think differently, then you become an individual. I’m not going to say you don’t care what people think, because everybody does to a degree. When you get comfortable in your skin, that’s what I’m trying to say. When you get comfortable in who you are and what you stand for and what you do, then it really doesn’t matter. It’s just kind of taking me to, I guess, dressing like your grandpa. Which I’m fine with.
What Duck Hunting is Really All About
“When you combine all those things, that’s where I get my joy in a duck blind.”
Ramsey Russell: I’m not going to go into depth on this because I think that’s a great way to end this meeting. It really speaks to the person that you are. But I travel a lot, and there’s a lot of miles involved, but my favorite destinations, I find— It’s not the distance or even the duck. It’s like, somehow, you pierce this time warp. You find yourself a long way from home, but, all of a sudden, you’re hunting more fundamentally and more simply. I don’t know. To me, in the same way that using a handmade call which you made yourself to bring in a duck, or a handmade decoy to bring in a duck— There’s just something about that relationship. The more fundamental and simple I get, the greater that relationship with that resource becomes to me. That’s how it all ties in together to me, personally. Boy, there’s some really, really nice space age technology brands out here, today, that are lighter and practical and more functional and drier and better for packing, but that green coat’s always on top of the pile, man. It’s always in the mix. It’s just who I am.
Josh Raggio: Let me ask you this, and I hope I know the answer. Alluding to what you just said— I know it doesn’t happen every single time you call or pull the trigger or anything, but when you’re sitting in a blind sometimes, I hope—and this is my hope, really not even a question, but you can kind of expound on it a little bit—when you blow that call, and you just saw those ducks just break a neck to turn around and come right back into your decoys, and you pull the trigger— Do you ever just look down and go, “Man, I got to see that get made.” Or you’re wearing your green coat or anything. “Man, I’ve had this coat for thirty years, and it just built another story with just that pass of ducks. Just that one group of ducks.” Do you ever just stop in a blind and go, “This is really what it’s all about.”
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I wouldn’t say— When that duck breaks, I’m going to tell you, the last thing on my mind is, “I remember seeing this duck call made.” Hell no, man, I’m getting ready to kill that duck. But I feel it. I feel it. Boy, him responding is that whole connection. It’s all those pieces put together, now tethered out to that duck that’s fixing to die. I feel it, and I remember it. It speaks to me.
Josh Raggio: When you shoot your granddad’s 1100 that’s eighty years old. When you combine all those things, that’s where I get my joy in a duck blind. It’s thinking about, “Man, that all just happened, and look what I’m wearing. Look what I just shot. Look at the call I blew. Look at the company I’m with. We just had some great coffee, and we just killed some ducks.” That’s how it all comes full circle for me.
Ramsey Russell: Josh, boy, there’s so many more questions I’ve got for you. Last thing, and after I’ll wrap up, is that I enjoy hunting with you not only because we act alike and we think alike and all that good stuff, but because you make a mean fried honey bun, I’ve noticed. Every time we duck hunt, you bring those honey buns and the coffee. That’s a good thing. Boy, to smell that honey bun sugar sizzling down there on the skillet— No matter how good the duck hunting is, that’s always a benefit. Did your dad cook like that, too?
Josh Raggio: No, that was a hunting group thing that got started in the public land woods because you’ve got to get there at four, early. This was actually before they had the four o’clock rules. Hell, you didn’t have anything else to do; you might as well cook. I’m not going to take credit for the honey bun deal because I don’t even remember if I did it. I think it could have been Brooks or Murray or Ed. There ain’t no telling who actually decided, “Let’s throw a honey bun in the skillet,” but it’s become a thing.
Ramsey Russell: My money’s on Big Ed.
Josh Raggio: It became a thing of ours. You don’t go anywhere without your skillet and five boxes of honey buns. It’s just what you do.
Ramsey Russell: You mentioned public, and that’s a big deal. That’s kind of your thing, public green timber.
Josh Raggio: It was, yeah. Until a couple years ago, when two of my best friends bought a private place. So for the first time ever, really— My dad owns a little forty acre block that we can hunt. We only hunt it once or twice a year. Yeah, because that’s what Dad and I did. We didn’t have private land, so we’d go to Delta National. Walk— We didn’t have a four-wheeler. You’re talking about a mile walk to get to somewhere, pre-GPS days. I have his journal in there, you’ve seen that before. He has maps drawn and all that kind of thing. There wasn’t satellite on your phone. You couldn’t see these little duck holes. But they put in the work, they found them. Back in his college days, as I started hunting, I was little and couldn’t hardly keep up, but I figured out how to keep up. That’s how I started hunting and learning how to hunt. It was very frustrating sometimes, but, at the end of the day, it was also very rewarding. I can see how, if you have a private spot, you can get that same reward from all the work you put into plants and habitat. Heck, just even getting a lodge is a big deal. That same reward can be found, but I found it through the public hunting aspect of things.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I cut my teeth and started again, a long time ago, hunting public flooded timber. It’s been a long, long time since I had hunted flooded timber when, this year, over in Arkansas— What I realized is that you go out on any given day and shoot a mallard duck in a rice field or bean field or whatever, and it’s just a mallard duck. But, boy, that one duck comes through the treetops and lands in your lap. It’s just that one duck. Now, hopefully, there’s more, but that one duck in the timber comes through the timber into your lap.
Josh Raggio: You’re hooked if that happens. If you ever get to experience that, you’re hooked.
Ramsey Russell: Josh, how can anybody listening connect with you on social media? How do they connect with you?
Josh Raggio: Instagram or Facebook. Raggio Custom Calls on both of them. I have a website, RaggioCustomCalls.com. Shoot me emails through there. Get tons of messages through Instagram. That’s really my main platform, I guess, is Instagram. I really enjoy taking pictures in the shop. I concentrate and think about that whole, I guess you’d call it marketing aspect, as much as I do turning calls. I love it. So Instagram is probably the best place.
Ramsey Russell: You said you do an Instagram Live?
Josh Raggio: Yeah. About a month ago, I started doing it on Tuesday nights. I started doing an Instagram Live with different guests from the industry. Some friends, some people that are more acquaintances. It’s an hour. Sometimes we’ll do two hours. Instagram cuts you off in an hour, so we’ll come right back on. It does well. We’ll get 1,000 or 1,500 viewership in a night. It’s just like what we’re doing now; it just happens to be live. It’s interactive because people can ask questions, and I encourage that. We did a jam session with a buddy of mine from Nashville who’s going to make it on the radio, you’ll hear him one day. We did that last Friday, or Friday before, just to get away from the duck call stuff and do something totally different. He came down, and we both played an hour session together on guitars. This week, I didn’t have a guest. I just got on there live and said, “If you want to come on here with me and ask questions and talk, just hit the request button.” They did. I had some really good guests, just doing that, the other day. I hope it’s offering some insight from people that I have friendships with. I hope I’m asking the right questions and pulling good information from those people for the folks that are listening. It’s been a really good time. Essentially, it’s a phone conversation that you guys get to listen to and ask questions about.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all heard him: @raggiocustomcalls on Instagram. Check it out. Boy, if you ever make it through Raymond, Mississippi, and get to stop by the shop and watch your own call made—or some of these events he goes to, and get to watch your own cherry-picked wood call made—by all means, do it. I highly encourage it. But, hey, thank y’all for listening. See you next time.