I wrote this piece in May 2009, shortly after Popcorn Sutton died. I hadn’t thought about Popcorn for a while, but recently a few people who knew Popcorn have stumbled across the original blog post and added comments which got me thinking about the tough old moonshiner again. Here’s looking at you (again), Popcorn.
NOTE: There are some significant updates at the end of the original piece.
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton stands on the front porch of Misty Mountain
Ranch B&B near Maggie Valley, N.C./Photo courtesy of Peter and Karen Hessian
I first heard about Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton on a train rolling through the mountains of North Carolina one evening last June (that would be 2008).
Jim Harbin, who was working for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad at the time, told me about this legendary old moonshiner from Maggie Valley, N.C., who had just been busted again by federal agents for distilling illegal alcohol.
I had to be in the low country the next evening, but I determined to track down Popcorn Sutton, moonshiner extraordinaire, if possible in the short time I had.
Jim warned me to be careful: “I hear he can be a mean man. Hard and mean. Hey, he runs shine INTO Tennessee. You’ve got to be hard to do that.”
The only leads I had for finding Popcorn Sutton were that his base was in a small town (the aforementioned Maggie Valley) near Great Smoky Mountains National Park and that a friend of his, Stuart, worked at a campground somewhere on Balsam Mountain, near where I was staying.
The next morning I started going up one side of Balsam Mountain and down the other looking for the campground and Stuart. I finally found Moonshine Creek Campground down on Dark Ridge Road, way down in a valley at the foot of the mountain.
Well, I never found Stuart but I did find a woman named Cathie in the campground office who knew Popcorn — and, amazingly, I also found some of Popcorn’s honest-to-goodness moonshine there.
Cathie with some of Popcorn Sutton’s moonshine
Cathie: “I know Popcorn’s out but I don’t know where he is. I’ve heard he’s over in Tennessee.”
Me: “A fella told me last night he was in Maggie Valley.”
Cathie: “Yeah, might be. I’ve heard Maggie Valley. I’ve heard Tennessee. He might have just decided to go to cover for a while.”
And that’s when I noticed two liquid-filled mason jars on a shelf behind her.
Me: “Is that what I think it is?”
Cathie reached up to bring the jars down: “Yes, that’s genuine Popcorn shine. I got it as a birthday present and I just keep it around to give the campers a thrill.”
She unscrewed one of the lids. “You can smell it but don’t drink none.”
With the fumes of that raw alcohol spirit still clearing my sinuses, I headed for Maggie Valley.
Popcorn Sutton’s “antique shop” — more ramshackle garage than anything — was there but closed up tight.
Again, I met people who knew Popcorn — a second-cousin-once-removed and a couple of fourth cousins.
Everyone said roughly the same thing: “He’s over in Tennessee” or “I think he’s still in jail.”
I stopped for lunch at Salty Dog’s Seafood and Grill, where grey-bearded bikers were waiting out a rainstorm drinking beer and eating oysters on the half-shell. (Salty Dog’s, by the way, is the best and cheapest fresh-seafood-far-from-the-sea mountain eatery I’ve ever been in — a dozen fried shrimp and fries and three draft beers for a total of $11.06, tax included.)
And of course the waitress was related to Popcorn Sutton.
Me: “He’s got a place here, doesn’t he?”
Me: “Can you tell me where.”
Waitress: “No, Popcorn wouldn’t like that.”
Me: “I won’t tell him where I got the address.”
Waitress: “Well, I don’t know you and I don’t know what you would or wouldn’t do. But I’ve known Popcorn since I was a little girl and I sure do know what he’d do if he found out I’d told you something about him.”
So that was that. One last question for the waitress: “How old’s Popcorn.”
“Oh, he’d be 55-56, somewhere’s around there.”
What? This “mean, old SOB” (as people had been describing him) was younger than me? Great.
So that ended my day of searching for Popcorn Sutton in the Great Smoky Mountains. I headed to the lowlands through rain that turned mountain roads into rivers and lightning and thunder that sent wild turkeys racing madly through the woods.
I did find Popcorn a few months later, but not in person — I talked to him on the telephone in September (again, 2008).
And he was nowhere near Balsam Mountain or Maggie Valley. That was a wild goose chase. He was across the state line, under house arrest in his other home in Parrottsville, Cocke County, Tenn.
I found Popcorn through Peter and Karen Hessian, two of his longtime friends and supporters, who own the Misty Mountain Ranch B&B near Maggie Valley. Popcorn was a regular visitor to Misty Mountain, where he would often play the banjo on the front porch for guests.
That was the nice side of Popcorn. The “mean, old SOB” side of him explains how he got his nickname. One evening about 40 years ago Sutton was trying to get a dime’s worth of popcorn out of a dispensing machine in a bar. The vending machine ate the dime but did not produce the popcorn — so Sutton killed it. Depending on who tells the story, he either shot the machine with one of the pistols he carried around at the time or he beat it to death with a pool cue.
And thus the legend of “Popcorn” Sutton began.
Popcorn was arrested, of course, and had to pay to replace the vending machine.
It wasn’t his first brush with the law. Popcorn had already been convicted of moonshining earlier in the 1970s. It was a family business. Popcorn learned the trade from his father and grandfather. He learned to do it right, with the finest equipment (costing about $10,000 per still, Popcorn reckoned) and best ingredients, and he sneered at amateurs who produced deadly rotgut on the cheap.
Here’s the link to a video interview with Popcorn Sutton that Johnny Knoxville posted on his jackassworld blog in February. If the site tells you the video is not available, try again in a few minutes and it will be there. It’s hit or miss.
As a legendary moonshiner, Popcorn became something of a celebrity in the mountains. He wrote a self-published book entitled “Me and My Likker” that sold out and was the subject of a TV documentary, as well as the star of several YouTube videos showing him making moonshine.
Customers began asking Popcorn to autograph their liquor purchases, so — in true Popcorn Sutton fashion — he took to signing the lids of his jars with this slogan: “F*** You — Popcorn Sutton.”
I was relieved to find out Popcorn really was older than me. When I talked to him on the telephone last September, he was about to turn 62 — although you can see by the accompanying photos that the grizzled, elfin old codger could easily pass for someone in his 80s.
Popcorn Sutton’s March 2008 police booking mugshot
Popcorn was under house arrest at the time, with a tracking device on his arm that kept him within 100 feet of his house, awaiting sentencing on alcohol and gun charges. Federal agents had seized three stills and 850 gallons of moonshine on property he rented in March 2008. He was still on probation from a 2007 moonshining conviction at the time.
He pleaded guilty to the new charges last April.
The gun offences were Popcorn’s biggest concern because, as a previously convicted felon, that meant federal prison time. Popcorn knew he could not do a long spell in prison. He spent 10 days in jail in Greenville, Tenn., after his March arrest and that nearly did him in.
“I almost died from those 10 days in that dungeon in hell. I’m sick, I’ve got three bleeding ulcers, I can’t eat regular food, and I’m addicted to cigarettes. It drove me out of my mind not having my cigarettes those 10 days. That jail wasn’t fit for a dog. And that ‘s nothing compared to the penitentiary. I won’t live two weeks in penitentiary.”
Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents had Popcorn under surveillance for some time before his arrest, but they also had an undercover agent posing as a biker get close to the old moonshiner.
“He bought liquor from me two or three times. I trusted the wrong damn one there. And I make a real mistake showing him my guns. They’re old antique pistols that I kept locked away in a safe — real collector’s items. I never carried them around or anything. They’re just real beauties and I was proud of them, so I made the mistake of showing them off to this fella. Now they want to put me in prison for that.”
Popcorn was living with his fourth wife, Pam, in Parrottsville as we talked. He said he had been “run out” of Maggie Valley, his hometown, the previous year after a falling out with the woman he had lived with there the previous nine years.
And he was flat broke, living on donations and what money his wife earned working three days a week.
“I used to have money. Now I don’t have a dime.”
In his flush days, Popcorn looked to the future and bought himself a fancy coffin, which he kept in his bedroom awaiting the day it would be needed.
For a scrawny little old man with a bushy hillbilly beard, Popcorn always seemed to somehow attract women. And he had a very unique perspective on the kind of women he favoured.
“I like big’uns — 250, 270 pounds, the more the merrier. I like them big legs wrapped around me.”
Popcorn was nervous talking about his case and did not want me to quote him directly while his public defense lawyer tried one last-ditch manoeuvre — an appeal to then-president George W. Bush for a presidential pardon.
“You can’t get a letter to Bush, can you?” Popcorn asked me on the phone in September.
I couldn’t but I told him I would do what I could to help. I let Popcorn down. I got too involved in my own life and put his on the backburner. I should have done more to help a sick old man stay out prison and I didn’t.
Popcorn was not on the Bush end-of-term pardons list.
Two weeks ago, I got a cryptic e-mail from photographer Melody Ko, who had also taken an interest in Sutton. “Did you hear about Popcorn?” was all the message said.
I Googled “Popcorn Sutton” and found out the bad news: The old moonshiner had killed himself the week before.
On Friday, March 13, he finally got the notification to turn himself in at a federal prison in Georgia on March 20 to begin serving his 18-month sentence.
Popcorn thought about it over the weekend.
On Monday, March 16, while his wife was out of the house, Popcorn hooked up a hose from the exhaust to the interior of his old green Ford Fairlane.
Pam Sutton found her husband dead when she returned home. Two days later she buried him in the mountains near Maggie Valley, N.C., in the coffin he had bought many years before.
“He couldn’t go to prison. His mind would just not accept it. … So credit the federal government for my husband being dead. I really do,” she told The Associated Press a few hours after burying Popcorn.
I will visit Popcorn’s grave when I get back to North Carolina, to say goodbye and apologize for not having done more to keep him alive.
I’ll be interested to see if his gravestone has the words he wanted on it: