Legend or lawbreaker: The real story of Popcorn Sutton

The legendary Popcorn Sutton

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Tennessee loves the lore of its moonshine. 

From mountain boys outrunning revenuers in hopped up hot rods, to the illicit pleasure of drawing a sip of untaxed apple pie whiskey made in a copper still in someone’s mountain barn, there’s a rugged outlaw poetry that even the most straight-laced, law-abiding East Tennessean embraces when it comes to the original mountain dew. 

You want proof … 100 percent proof? 

Just listen to the lyrics “Rocky Top” – one of the state’s official’s songs and the fight song for the University of Tennessee. From the time they can walk, toddlers across the state, in addition to being taught to sing about girls wild as a mink and sweet as soda pop, warble about killing federal agents drinking moonshine whiskey from a jar. Despite the banjo plucking, it’s as hard of a song as anything ever cranked out by AC/DC. 

The lore of the moonshiners live. A quick drive through Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg will tell you that. Seemingly dozens of distilleries have popped up in recent years, selling legal versions of the mountain sippin’ whiskey – albeit taxed, watered down and regulated in such a way that it is exceedingly less likely to strike you blind. 

It was this lore that allowed Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton to thrive.

Photo by Sucker Punch Pictures

I didn’t know Popcorn. 

By the time I moved to his part of East Tennessee, Popcorn was a moonshine legend, nationally known in certain circles and a throwback to a time when outlaws, especially white southern outlaws, were embraced.

Popcorn Sutton was born in Maggie Valley, North Carolina in 1946 and spent most of his life in the mountains and hollers between Maggie Valley and Cocke County, Tennessee. 

Popcorn was born too late, however, for the true era of Thunder Road and the romanticized bootlegger. By the time he came of age, Cocke County’s other illicit cash crop, marijuana, was on the rise. 

Still, according to most accounts, Popcorn considered moonshining to be part of his heritage and he set about the family business with gusto. Despite multiple arrests beginning in 1974, including assault with a deadly weapon, Popcorn continued to ply his craft until 2009.  Having been caught with hundreds of gallons of shine and a .38 caliber pistol, Sutton was sentenced to 18 months in prison. 

Even then, hundreds of people signed a petition asking the federal judge for leniency. At the time, I wrote about the region’s hypocrisy – which afflicted me as well. Too many people bought the romanticized version of an East Tennessee moonshiner, like Robert Mitchum in “Thunder Road.” 

While we railed against the evil of drugs and hiked massive sentences for those peddling illicit and illegal drugs, we celebrated Popcorn and his mountain ways, selling a product that was every bit as addictive and harmful as many of the drugs other lawbreakers were getting locked up for. 

At the time of Popcorn’s death, East Tennessee was the capital of “Illegal is illegal.”

But not for Popcorn. For Popcorn, illegal was an irritant.

We bought into the poetry.  We bought into the myth. We bought into bullshit. 

And it was easy to do because Popcorn, for all his back country ways, was a marketing genius. 

Photo by Sucker Punch Pictures

In 1999, Sutton’s book “Me and My Likker” and subsequent how to VHS videos turned him into an underground celebrity. He was even covered in publications like the New York Times. 

My god, the man was a content gold mine. Profane, he wore a long scraggly beard, “overhauls” and a beat up old hat decorated with feathers and his “coon pecker” bone.  

In his reedy voice in a thick mountain accent, he delivered quotes like, “Jesus turned the water into wine, I turned it into likker.”  

For years, I figured he was  the living caricature of an old Smoky Mountain man. I figured that early on Sutton found out there was a certain amount of cachet, a certain amount of money and a certain kind of fame that came with being Popcorn and so he leaned into it.  

But, with the wisdom that comes with age, I’ve changed my position. Now, I figure it’s a bit like Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings.” Gandalf made such an impact on the culture that all subsequent wizards were expected to mirror his traits. Gandalf wasn’t a trope or a stereotype when Tolkien created him but with so many imitators it’s hard now, in retrospect, to recognize the original.

Photo by Sucker Punch Pictures

In the Sucker Punch Pictures documentary “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make” Popcorn rides the gravel roads of the Smoky Mountains in an old truck, clinching a cigarette between his boney fingers and cussing his way through his mountain philosophy.  

In one memorable six-minute stretch he uses the word damn roughly 75 times. 

“Hard work, isn’t it?” someone off camera asks him after he climbs up out of a stream.

“Hell, ain’t nuthin’ no Goddamned harder. Anybody that would have a man caught for trying to make a drank of likker ain’t nothin’ but a dirty sonofabitch, I don’t care who they are,” he said. “… I hope whoever turned me in, by God, may they rest in Hell is all I can say about it. And they probably will.”

Whether or not he was 100 percent the person he presented to the world, there’s no question the man knew what to say when the camera was on him.

“Once this here mud sets up, I’ll tell you what,” he says, looking up at the camera, and doing his best version of a backwoods Johnny Carson, and snickering at his own joke. “It’ll be harder than a Methodist Minister’s pecker.”

He gives himself away, a couple of times, dropping some of the more performative aspects of his personality, explaining the science behind the still, the cooling effects of the water and the way the stone and mud redirect the heat back into the still.  Watching him oversee the building of the still and the still furnace is a marvel of engineering. He may not be a champion speller – I suspect yore and likker are intentionally wrong to enhance the character – but the man put together a credible furnace with nothing but stones and mud in a way that suggests he could have had a nice career in construction, if he’d wanted. 

Popcorn Sutton's Moonshine Still
Photo by Sucker Punch Pictures

But make no mistake. That’s not what he wanted. Popcorn didn’t have any interest in living the life the rest of us lead. Quiet desperation wasn’t his way. 

At one point in the documentary, he takes a break and tells the camera, he started smoking and drinking at the age of 6, pausing at one point to light one unfiltered cigarette off another. 

“They say that smokin’ and drinkin’ will kill ya,” he explains. “But I don’t believe that cause my granddaddy lived to be somewhere around 90 years old and when he died they said that damned old likker and cigarettes killed him. I don’t believe that. I ain’t gonna worry about it, I ain’t gonna see 90 anyway. It don’t matter.”

And that, In the end, was why he was so easy to turn into a classic anti-hero, whether he deserved it or not. 

But hero, anti-hero or simple law-breaking cuss, it didn’t matter. Sutton wasn’t going to prison to serve the 18 months to which Ronnie Greer had sentenced him. 

Instead, in 2009, at the age of 62, having been diagnosed with cancer, he locked himself in his car and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, rather than go to prison. 

In the years after his death, the rights were sold to Hank Williams Jr. to produce a legal whiskey under Popcorn Sutton’s name but there are allegations that there is little of Sutton’s actual legacy – other than the name – in the product. 

“This is a hell of a way to make a living, making this goddamned likker,” he says in the documentary, stomping his way through the tall weeds. 

Maybe so. But I have a hard time believing he’d wanted to do much of anything else. 

Popcorn left a complicated legacy that likely will never be unraveled from the myth that envelops it.  Mostly because that’s the way we, and he, wanted it.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Sucker Punch Pictures for allowing us to use their incredible photos of Popcorn Sutton and his still for this article.

Shop The Last One by Sucker Punch Pictures

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