OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — It wouldn’t be fair to call Oxford resident Brion Whitten a jack of all trades. Just a lot of them.
He fights fires, both for a living and in his spare time.
He’s a former Marine who toured Iraq, Africa and Peru before being honorably discharged with a rank of corporal.
He’s authored a book about his experiences outdoors and how they relate to his faith.
He created his own line of award-winning turkey calls.
And now, seemingly out of nowhere, he’s become a content creator who’s steadily amassed a sizable online audience.
But no matter what adventure life takes him on next, Whitten, 39, remains focused on having fun, spreading the gospel, and telling a few good stories along the way.
As a teenager, Whitten didn’t care for turkey hunting. But while on the way to his usual deer hunting spot, he would come across lots of turkeys.
Knowing his stepdad was an avid turkey hunter, Whitten showed him to the spot one day when he was 16 years old.
He had no interest in bagging a gobbler that day, but while his stepdad was unpacking his calls, he handed Whitten the shotgun.
“He called one time, and that bird came down and landed (in front of us),” Whitten said.
From that moment, he was hooked; he’s been turkey hunting on his own ever since.
In nature, the hen goes to the gobbler. When hunters use a turkey call, they’re essentially reversing nature, tricking the gobbler to come to the “hen.”
“That’s really one of the things that really intrigued me about making a turkey call,” Whitten said. “Because you handmade something, take that handmade something and go out in the woods. And it has to be good enough to fool the actual thing. When you do that with your actual call, that’s a feeling that you can’t explain.”
After receiving a custom hand-turned turkey call from his brother-in-law for Christmas one year, Whitten decided to try making a call himself.
“I got to looking at it, and I said ‘Man, as much as I like turkey hunting, I bet I’d be good at this because I know what they’re supposed to sound like,’” Whitten said.
Whitten made his first turkey call in 2015.
Some may assume the name “Soggy Bottom Calls” is a reference to the fictional bluegrass group “The Soggy Bottom Boys” from the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and they would be right.
But the name goes deeper than that.
When Whitten married his wife, Kelly, he quickly became best friends with his late father-in-law, Randy Houston, with whom he regularly fished, hunted and discussed the Bible.
The Coen brothers’ classic was hands down Houston’s favorite movie. Not long before Houston died, Whitten took the first turkey call to his bedside.
“You know what would be cool?” Houston said. “If your business was called Soggy Bottom Calls. I can see it now.”
So, that’s what he called it.
It took a while for the business to take off. In the first couple years, Whitten sold maybe 200 calls.
“It didn’t do much until I figured out that there was a sound that people were really looking for,” Whitten said. “You can sell some pretty calls, but if they don’t have that sound, people are just collecting them.”
Three years into the business, he put his call head-to-head with others at a turkey call competition. That’s when he realized his call didn’t have the right sound.
“I came back to the drawing board, and I redid all my measurements, all my dimensions and tweaked it down to basically what it is today,” Whitten said. “It took a while. It took a lot of calls going in the garbage, calls that didn’t do right. Now I’ve got it down to a science.”
He now has a collection of trophies and medals from turkey call competitions, proof of his product’s quality.
To date, he’s sold more than 3,000 calls. Whitten sells them online, and they’re also carried by three area hunting stores: Hunter’s Haven in Tupelo; Hunters’ Hollow in Oxford and Down Range Outdoors in Water Valley.
The trick to selling calls, Whitten said, is as simple as getting people to give them a try.
“They get one turkey to answer to your call, and they’ll be hooked,” Whitten said.
In May 2021, Whitten released a book titled “Chasing The Gobble: Stories of Turkeys, a Marine, and God Almighty.”
He started writing it in 2020, inspired by comments over the years encouraging him to write down the hunting stories he loves to tell.
Like a lot of what Whitten does, the book was lovingly crafted by hand. For eight months, Whitten spent weekends and downtime at the fire department writing the book chapter by chapter. When he was done, his wife, Kelly, and friend Angela Eylar edited the book. Whitten self-published the book through Amazon.
The 86-page autobiography includes a dozen turkey hunting stories and a handful of stories from his time in the U.S. Marine Corps. Each chapter concludes with a devotional to tie each story to a biblical message.
“Chasing the Gobble” has sold around 1,100 copies since release, and Whitten hopes to write another book in the future. He always has more stories to tell.
Recently, Whitten found a new outlet to share his interests.
Whitten had heard about TikTok, but he didn’t think it would be an app he’d enjoy. That was until a friend sent him a video he’d recorded that had reached 600,000 views.
He had been making funny videos to post on his personal Facebook page for years and thought to himself “I can do that.”
So he made a TikTok account in November, posting several videos that got very little interaction.
It wasn’t until he started making videos about firefighting and knot-tying that his videos took off. His typical videos get several thousand views. Some have gotten far more — hundreds of thousands, even millions of views.
Whitten’s most popular TikTok, viewed more than 1.2 million times, starts with a viral clip of a cave explorer taking off their helmet to fit into a tiny tunnel, followed by a bewildered-looking Whitten saying to the camera, “Even with all my rope skills, if the helmet must go, the answer is ‘no.’”
Whitten’s TikTok following has grown to more than 79,500 followers in around five months, and he has accrued over 20,000 followers on Facebook in just a couple of weeks.
For the avid outdoorsman, firefighter, craftsman and Christian, it’s all about fun.
Or, mostly. Among the comedy and instructional videos, every third or fourth TikTok is a devotional or a Christ-oriented video using Whitten’s own words or a trending sound.
“At the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for,” Whitten said.
Spreading the gospel, he added, “to the ends of the earth and back,” is the goal of it all.
“I can get attention off of social media and then throw the gospel in there, but in a fun way to where people will actually watch it,” he said.
It’s safe to say Northeast Mississippians, and anyone with a phone, can expect a steady stream of videos about firefighting, rope skills, hunting and faith from him in the future.