John penned this a couple years ago and the spirit of Popcorn deserves a mention today in these tumultuous times.He represented a more authentic America where he feared for nothing and made his own way without harming another human being.
Neal Hutcheson at Sucker Punch Pictures released his splendid documentary on Sutton. I urge all of you to watch this movie if you get a chance. This is a new age of documentary film-making that is taking it to the next level. This documentary is a sample of this golden age. You can see the trailer here. -BB
Appalachia’s history is largely comprised of tales of resistance of one form or another. The poster child of Appalachia’s rebellion against unjust authority has always been the Moonshiner, the maker of non-government approved distilled spirits. These spirits were commonly referred to in the southern lexicon as moonshine, mountain dew, white lightning, “painter piss,” or perhaps more simply “likker.” There is no moonshiner more infamous than the Smoky Mountain’s own, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. He was not only one of the most famous makers of illicit liquor, but he also led his entire life in defiance of government authority and was quite a character to boot.
Sutton was born in Haywood County, North Carolina, a rural mountainous county on the Tennessee border. At an early age he learned whiskey making from his family and local whiskey makers a like in Haywood and neighboring Cocke County, Tennessee. In due time, he became a well-known whiskey maker in the region. Taking full advantage of the legal jurisdictional confusion between the two states, he plied his trade to the fullest. This was a very common practice employed by bootleggers and moonshiners in years past, when one sheriff would get on your trail you hopped across the state or county line and continued your business.
The tradition of whiskey making as employed by mountain folk originates further back than many people realize. It comes from the Poitín tradition popular in the peat bogs and mountain regions of Scotland and Ireland where most of the ancestors of the southern mountain people originated. While the mountain region of the Southern states lacked wheat, rye or barley for malt historically, residents of the region adapted using Indian corn and malted corn for the fermenting agent. Whiskey making is considered as sacred a right as bearing military style and cosmetically offensive “assault weapons” or keeping livestock. Moonshining in the southern mountains is not only justified on the grounds of natural rights, but also on even simpler grounds. Many makers of illicit whiskey, when asked why they do it have the simple answer of “… my daddy made whiskey, and his daddy made whiskey, and his daddy before him made whiskey, so I’m just gonna keep makin’ it to.”
Popcorn was a dyed in the wool capitalist and largely libertarian in his dealings and belief system. What set him apart from the rest was his unique marketing strategy. He boasts in his book “Me and My Likker,” that him and his father were not political beings, but instead sold moonshine to folks at the polling place on Election Day. This is a much more effective use of time than trying to vote yourself free. He was fiercely independent even to the extent of purchasing his own casket, flowers and the shovels needed to bury him before he died. He is on record of stating that even though he was extremely sick late in life and had amassed a pile of medical bills, “the government nor the county doesn’t pay my bills, I do.”
Popcorn’s first run in with the law was in 1974. He was arrested and later convicted on illegal production of untaxed whiskey, among other charges. In typical mountain fashion, the day after he was released on bond after his arrest, he went right back to the same spot where he was arrested and set his still back up. He figured that was the safest place to be back in business. When speaking of his arrests he was fond of saying “I didn’t steal anything here… I paid for the copper, the sugar, the corn…so I don’t see where I broke the law anywhere.”
Over the years he built up quite a reputation. From selling jars of likker directly out of his junk shop in Maggie Valley, NC to even being close friends with a Federal Judge. He had a unique marketing strategy of writing books about himself and even appearing in documentary films. Many stores in Maggie Valley, North Carolina carried his books and movies and for 50$ each they could be yours. Many still do to this day, years after his death. When confronted about why it might be a bad idea to appear in a movie that depicts him breaking the law, his response was, “You cant sell it if nobody knows you got it.” He would charge $3 to have your picture made “with a real mountain moonshiner” at his store.