Seeing a recent mug shot of the legendary moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, a person might have thought: There’s the last of a breed, the genuine article. And that person would have been right. Popcorn’s death, on March 16, was the final act of a defiant individualist. Of course, like the man himself, it was more complicated than that.
I encountered Popcorn in the late summer of 2007. He’d been busted by the state authorities in Tennessee earlier that year when a fire on his property led to the discovery of dozens of gallons of moonshine and three operating stills. The news of his arrest was, to say the least, surprising. Popcorn made appearances at Appalachian folk-life festivals, wrote a book about making moonshine called Me and My Likker, and put out a DVD. It was hard to believe that after courting such public attention he’d still be mashing in batches at the homeplace.
I’d tracked him down at the Misty Mountain Bed and Breakfast, in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, where over the years he’d become friendly with the innkeepers. They celebrated him, hung newspaper articles about him in the halls, and bought one of his old Fords when he needed money. They were expecting him, and sure enough, before long a gold, late-model Toyota nosed into the driveway.
“There he is now.”
This was decidedly not the Model A in which he unfailingly appeared.
He wouldn’t talk to me. He had fallen off his porch and hurt his back; a chiropractor was making it worse; he was in a codeine fog. He stomped around on the porch, bitching and cussing, got back in the Toyota, and took off.
A curious writer showing up unannounced was the least of his worries. He was, about the time that I saw him or shortly thereafter, beginning a relationship that would result in his selling hundreds of gallons of liquor to an undercover government agent. The feds upped the ante, and when they sprung the trap they got him with three stills (each with a capacity of 1000 gallons) and more than 850 gallons of liquor.
The public response was sympathetic. There are, as of this writing, 14 pages on Facebook dedicated to Popcorn. Every blog post or news article on the Web is followed by a long thread of comments, mostly expressing that the government ought to find something else to do and stop bothering a poor old hillbilly who was just making a living the only way he knew how.
In late January, the 62-year-old moonshiner was sentenced to 18 months in a federal penitentiary, and, according to his wife and daughter, chose to take his own life rather than face the time. (He’d recently been diagnosed with cancer, as well, and seemed convinced that he’d die in prison.)
In one of the documentaries about him, Popcorn told a story about his doctor, who held big raucous parties on Friday and Saturday nights with many prominent citizens in attendance. Popcorn showed up one evening and the doctor introduced him to everyone, saying that Popcorn had the greatest criminal mind he'd ever seen. Popcorn’s delight in this assessment was plain. To the end, his act was as clear as corn liquor and muddled as the hangover it gives you. Where shtick ended and reality began is impossible to tell, but one thing is for sure: Lots of people on the Tennessee border are going to go thirsty.
Max Watman’s next book Chasing the White Dog, about moonshine and small-scale distilling, will be published in early 2010.