Arts & Culture

Meet the Man Who Knows Texas Better Than Anyone

After spending fifty years traveling three million miles of Lone Star State backroads, TV host Bob Phillips still loves being behind the wheel

Photo: Martin Perry

Bob Phillips crosses the Colorado River on the Regency Bridge, the last swinging bridge in Texas.

Caught up in the excitement of talking to people all day about why they do what they do, Bob Phillips forgot to eat lunch. Luckily, he has a stash of peanut butter crackers in his glove box, conveniently stored for situations just like this. The Ford Expedition is quiet, except for the sound of the evening breeze rushing through rolled-down windows. Kelli, Phillips’s cohost and wife, sits in the passenger seat with her laptop open, researching their next story. As Phillips drives the Texas backroads he knows so well, he is lost in thought, thinking about his latest interview and reliving the special moments of the day. 

Phillips, a Dallas native, has spent fifty years telling stories of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” on Texas Country Reporter, the longest running independently produced series in American television history. After five decades and more than three million miles on the road, Phillips’s portfolio of subjects includes people from what seems like every corner of the Lone Star State. The show’s concept is simple. “From day one, we wanted to find people who were passionate about something in their lives,” Phillips says. “It’s different for every one of us, but it is the thing that keeps us moving forward.” He calls it “the real reality show of Texas.” 

photo: Brian Hawkins
Texas Country Reporter cohosts Bob and Kelli Phillips.

TCR, originally named 4 Country Reporter, premiered at 6:30 p.m. on October 7, 1972, on Dallas Channel 4. The following spring, Phillips graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and was immediately offered a full-time reporting job at the Dallas CBS affiliate, where he had been working as a “gopher” and news photographer since 1970, when he was only eighteen years old. Although the show was his idea, inspired by On the Road with Charles Kuralt, Phillips didn’t appear in front of the camera until a few months later. In 1986, Phillips left the TV station, retitled the show, and started producing TCR out of his own production company.

Sometimes, Phillips finds the stories he showcases. But more frequently, stories find Phillips. He features everyday people, many of whom viewers have never heard of before. He would rather tell a story about a mailman delivering an occasional chicken than cover the latest antics of a celebrity. He stays away from negative news, fleeting fads, and clickbait, opting for feel-good and uplifting tales. His favorites are of those who have overcome odds. 

“I was raised among the people that I feature on the show,” Phillips says. “My dad was the poster child for the type of person that makes a good story for us. He was raised on a farm without electricity or indoor plumbing, lost his arm when he was in his twenties, and kept on farming with a plow and mules. What I have done is gone out and found more people like my dad. And Texas is full of them.” Although TCR occasionally highlights people who live in big cities like Dallas and San Antonio, the most surprising stories, Phillips says, come from tiny rural towns found along two-lane highways and dirt roads. “If you don’t drive everywhere, you miss all the good stuff,” Phillips says. 

photo: Amanda Campbell
A Texas sunset through the rear windshield of the Texas Country Reporter vehicle.

One of the many TCR regulars who stand out to Phillips is Milton Watts, a farmer turned poet. Watts was born in East Texas’s Marion County on a family farm and ranch. Watts loved it—he planned to put fruits, vegetables, and beef on people’s tables for the rest of his life. But then Ferrell’s Bridge Dam was built, which caused the family land to flood, leaving behind Lake O’ the Pines and impossible conditions for farming and ranching. Faced with circumstances out of his control, Watts, a man who, according to Phillips, looked and dressed like a riverboat gambler, pivoted. “He wrote some of the most beautiful poetry that you have ever heard in your life,” Phillips says. 

In the mid-1970s, Phillips came across a man who had traded his six-figure salary at Texas Instruments for a popcorn machine. “He wasn’t satisfied,” Phillips explains. “That job was not feeding his soul. He wanted to do something to feel more alive.” So, the man gave up his job to sell bags of popcorn in downtown Dallas. After the Popcorn Man’s segment ran, Phillips received letters from viewers who wrote that after watching the show, they felt inspired to make a change and do something more meaningful with their own lives. Phillips refers to this phenomenon as “the TCR Effect.”

TCR, which is carried by local affiliates in every Texas market as well as nationwide on RFD-TV, has grown into more than just a TV show. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Texas Country Reporter Festival in downtown Waxahachie, a day full of food, music, art, and more than a hundred Texans who have been featured on TCR. It’s the largest one-day festival in Texas, drawing fifty- to seventy-thousand people from around the state, Phillips says. 

photo: Ellen Leathers-Wishart
Phillips’s memoir, A Good Long Drive, is out now.

Even at age seventy, Phillips isn’t slowing down. On October 1, he and Kelli kicked off “A Texas Tribute,” a year-long symphony tour that combines classical, Texas-themed compositions performed by local orchestras with live readings by the couple about Texas. And for his new book, A Good Long Drive, released in September, he did something he’s not accustomed to: He tells his own story. The memoir details his life, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how TCR came to be, and highlights some of Phillips’s favorite stories from the road. Reflecting on the past fifty years wasn’t easy, he says, especially since he works hard to avoid inserting himself into TCR’s stories. “The first thing I had to do was convince myself that anybody out there cared what my story is.” 

Phillips believes he has the best job in the world. “As I look back, I realize that this TV show has become me, and I have become the TV show,” he says. But down the road? “In my wildest of dreams, the show would continue on without me.”   

To read about Phillips’s favorite Texas road trip stops, click here