Portrait of a Moonshiner

By on Monday, March 14th, 2011

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was an Appalachian moonshiner. He learned the craft from his father, Vader, growing up in the Smoky Mountains by the North Carolina/Tennessee border – one of the four moonshine capitals of the world.

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. (Photo © U.S. Marshals Service)

Vader had learned the art of old copper cookery from his father, and it seems that special brand of alchemy ran deep in the family’s Scots-Irish ancestry. Lots of folks out there can say that; the Scots-Irish brought the craft with them when they came over; it didn’t become illegal until the Whiskey Rebellion and Washington’s “Tom the Tinker” days in the late 1700s.

A lot of folks in those parts can also point to a family history of mule-like stubbornness and fierce rebellion that kept them cooking up home brew even after the laws kicked in. It was a determination that took them flying down Thunder Road and into the annals of NASCAR history. See, up in the hills, you just do what’s got to be done, and if government or outsiders don’t like it, then government or outsiders know where they can stick their meddling.

As Ray Snader, one of Popcorn’s friends and a local radioman put it: “You talk to some of the old people, and they say, ‘You can say it was illegal and we don’t like to break the law, but when it comes down to breaking the law and feeding the family, or not feeding the family, we feed the family.’”

A young Popcorn Sutton holding his baby daughter, Sky

Or maybe some do it for the love of the game. Long after many of his ilk had gotten tired of outrunning the “revenuers” and had gone legit, Popcorn was still making his “likker.” He insisted on living life on his own terms. It’s no surprise then – in a life lived on a knife edge – that he would leave a few scars.

Popcorn committed suicide on March 16, 2009. He had just gotten busted selling about 300 gallons of untaxed whiskey to an undercover ATF agent, and he didn’t have it in him to fight the 18-month sentence handed down for the recovered guns, bullets, three 1,000-gallon stills, copper line, 800 gallons of moonshine and hundreds of gallons of sour mash found on his property. His tired body – hunched from dragging 25-pound sacks of sugar deep into the shielding forest – was also fighting cancer. When he died, he left behind a wife of seven months, his stills, an old Ford Fairmont he’d bought with three jugs of moonshine, and a Greek god-like mythology that extended from sea to shining sea.

But Popcorn’s legacy is not all glory. He also left behind approximately eight children, ranging in age from 12 to 42. The number is an estimate because no one seems to know, for certain, how many there might be. Popcorn didn’t acknowledge most (some say any) of them. But several of his kids – maybe showing a stubborn streak inherited from their father – are acknowledging him. Escaping into the light her father shunned, Sky Sutton – the most outspoken of the bunch – is documenting life as a moonshiner’s daughter through her website, Popcorn Sutton, and her recently published book, Daddy Moonshine.

When he died, he left behind a wife of seven months, his stills, an old Ford Fairmont he’d bought with three jugs of moonshine, and a Greek god-like mythology that extended from sea to shining sea.

Sky is the product of Popcorn’s marriage to his second wife. Yes, wife. For all of the jokes about Appalachia and his chosen profession, Popcorn preferred his women legal. And parts of Sky’s childhood were just as mainstream. “I did what other kids did,” she says. “I wore little pink dresses on Easter, took swimming lessons and joined Girl Scouts.”

Sky Sutton remembers a childhood in which you didn't ask where daddy was.

But the memories aren’t all dress-up clothes and extra-curricular activities. There are other, more off-beat reflections filed away in the 36-year-old’s memory. She explains, “My baby photos are VERY different from those of my peers. Log cabins, overalls, bare feet and donkeys.” And some flashbacks put the baby with the bathwater: “One photo shows my baby bathtub being used to mix up ingredients for my father’s ‘shine.”

There are other differences, too. Sky and her siblings are the subject of ire and antipathy and chat forums, enduring comments like, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” “Your [sic] trash,” and “Wow, you are such a disgrace.” And that’s after years of the special kind of ostracism experienced by a kid without a father. When asked how her mother handled Sky’s curiosity, she sort of shrugs it off, “All of Popcorn’s baby mamas have the same thing to say about him: Nothing. Growing up my sisters and I all heard the same sentence, ‘Why do you want to know about him? He’s gone.’”

Sutton's truck still

And now he’s gone for good. In the wake of his death, no one cares about getting the Ford Fairmont, and all 800 gallons of white lightening have long disappeared. But Popcorn’s widow has partnered with NorCal native and former pro Supercross racer, Jamey Grosser, who is allegedly the only person who knows Popcorn’s recipes and rituals, (Jamey was in the middle of a sort of alcoholic assistantship when Popcorn died). Country music legend, Hank Williams Jr. (who never met Sutton, but attended his memorial service in Parrotsville, TN), is also a partner on the project, praising Sutton as “a folk hero.” They started legally producing the unoaked whiskey in small batches, in winter 2010.

But behind the myth and glitzy distribution of Popcorn’s legal hooch, the mountain man continues to confound. His children fight for recognition while nasty public battles ensue between them and Sutton’s widow. His initial burial spot, next to his parents, near his boyhood home in Mt. Sterling, NC, had allegedly been vandalized – a claim the kids reject. His wife moved Sutton’s body to Tennessee soon after. The kids want to bring him back to the family plot.

Sky talks about returning Sutton to his original grave almost as a way of reclaiming the man who never claimed her. She wants the mountain man to return to the mountains – to that connection with his kin, his culture and his kind. Some say Popcorn wants that, too. Sky refers to the massive rock slide that rumbled down the Smoky Mountains on October 25, 2009, at mile marker 2.6, three miles east of the Tennessee state line. “Many people believe it was Sutton energy from beyond the grave that brought down the landslide on I-40 East just hours after his body had been buried in the side yard.”

Or maybe, in the end, it really was family that kept Popcorn in the craft, and perhaps it is more than just his kids that want him to stay. Sky continues, “Some say it was my grandparents, Bonnie and Vader, demanding their son’s return to the family plot.”

In a life shadowed by moonshine, you can outrun the law, but destiny doesn’t give up so easy.

Popcorn's tombstone, made before his death.

Written by Arianna Armstrong

Arianna snacks, sups, sips and swallows - and lives to write about it. When she isn’t buried in her laptop or lounging at the bottom of a glass, she’s taking her son on adventures across Los Angeles, opening his mind to the amazing beauty of the world and its people.

26 Comments

  1. Erika Kotite says:

    Portrait of a Moonshiner–Popcorn Sutton lived (and died) for his right to make whiskey. New on Toque http://tinyurl.com/4fxpglr

  2. Portrait of a Moonshiner–Popcorn Sutton lived (and died) for his right to make whiskey. New on Toque http://tinyurl.com/4fxpglr

  3. Don Phelps says:

    Great Job Arianna – interesting read having lived in SW Virginia for a couple of years – life still goes on – pun intended :)

  4. My latest article for Toque Mag abt the late, great moonshiner Popcorn Sutton RT @ToqueMag: Portrait of a Moonshiner http://bit.ly/dSFH3N

  5. Celia says:

    Such a colorful profile and story. A great read!

  6. This was a great read. Fascinating

  7. Cassie says:

    Awesome Arianna! I’m going to share this on the NC Culture Facebook page I am ramping up. Interesting read!

  8. Gail Daker says:

    So sad the law could not leave Popcorn alone,He was a good man, so he did something illigal how many people did not do something illigal and they can point fingers.So sad he is gone I havent drank any shine since.only because theres none as good. rest in peace,Popcorn,we miss you/

  9. Sky Sutton says:

    RT @ToqueMag: Portrait of a Moonshiner http://bit.ly/eIbtSA

  10. Portrait of a Moonshiner: Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, last of the Appalachian moonshiners http://bit.ly/faoitI via @toquemag @ariannala

  11. PS-Scroll down to the bottom of this story to see a pic of the best gravestone ever. http://bit.ly/faoitI

  12. RT @elinashatkin: PS-Scroll down to the bottom of this story to see a pic of the best gravestone ever. http://bit.ly/faoitI

  13. kathy B says:

    RT @elinashatkin: PS-Scroll down to the bottom of this story to see a pic of the best gravestone ever. http://bit.ly/faoitI

  14. Dena Stern says:

    RT @elinashatkin: PS-Scroll down to the bottom of this story to see a pic of the best gravestone ever. http://bit.ly/faoitI

  15. top_tw_food says:

    RT @elinashatkin: PS-Scroll down to the bottom of this story to see a pic of the best gravestone ever. http://bit.ly/faoitI

  16. RT @elinashatkin: PS-Scroll down to the bottom of this story to see a pic of the best gravestone ever. http://bit.ly/faoitI

  17. RT @elinashatkin PS-Scroll down to the bottom of this story to see a pic of the best gravestone ever. http://bit.ly/faoitI -that is awesome

  18. RT @LATimesFood RT @elinashatkin: Scroll down to the bottom of this story to see a pic of the best gravestone ever. http://bit.ly/faoitI

  19. Jim Calhoun says:

    Great piece. As a person involved in the Popcorn Sutton deal prior to his death, I would like to offer one correction for your readers. You stated that “Popcorn’s widow partnered with…” In truth, Popcorn himself was the driving force behind the deal with Jamey — from hand writing pages upon pages of detailed instructions to designing the custom stills we use to produce his whiskey in Tennessee. It was Popcorn who insisted on making sure his loving wife Pam was taken care of in the event of his demise. Even Hank’s involvement was Popcorn’s wish. Popcorn was signatory to the deal, and Pam had nothing to do with it. And ultimately, only Popcorn knew what his fate would be. We miss him dearly.

  20. Erika Kotite says:

    Thank you for the clarification. Clearly moonshine is not that simple to make–or at least the kind Popcorn made.

  21. Marc says:

    His Likker was sure good though..had a lot of it and man he knew exactly how to mix all the RIGHT ingredients to help out a BAD cold!! NICE Piece of writing!

  22. Still one of my favorites: "Portrait of a Moonshiner" http://t.co/H2hsXvul (on @ToqueMag)

  23. you & many others! RT @AriannaLA: Still one of my favorites: "Portrait of a Moonshiner" http://t.co/B6hzkMXQ (on @ToqueMag)

  24. you & many others! RT @AriannaLA: Still one of my favorites: "Portrait of a Moonshiner" http://t.co/B6hzkMXQ (on @ToqueMag)

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