In search of ‘White Lightnin’: Moonshine in Southern Appalachia
It was the only thing he knew how to do. It was the only thing he wanted to do.
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was a moonshiner, through and through. Meandering the thick woods surrounding Maggie Valley, and points beyond in Southern Appalachia, Sutton gained a reputation throughout the Southeast as the maker of the finest ‘shine ever created. For decades, he kept making liquor even after being caught on a handful of occasions.
After his last arrest, he was sentenced to 18 months in a federal prison. With mounting health problems and personal convictions about the law, he found himself at a dead end. Rather than report to jail, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 2009 at age 62.
“He didn’t care about anything but making moonshine, and he didn’t feel like he was doing anything wrong,” said his widow, Pam Sutton.
Though already a legendary and controversial figure during his lifetime, Popcorn’s death immortalized his role as the outlaw moonshiner. The iconic image of a bootlegger has been part of American culture since the country’s inception and with that image came centuries of confrontation, vilification and condemnation.
It’s an Appalachian tradition as deep and rich as the Great Smoky Mountains themselves — one still finding its footing in a modern world where few things survive the onslaught of time.
The practice of distilling and making spirits in Southern Appalachia dates back hundreds of years. With an influx of Scots-Irish settlers into the area during the 17th and 18th centuries, their ancient methods and techniques of making liquor came with them. Whisky production was not only an economic vehicle for society but also one that influenced politics and culture.
Once in America, these early pioneers molded their distilling ways to fit the new crop they discovered — corn, which was a plentiful ingredient grown by Native Americans and quickly adopted by newcomers.
“Making liquor was a natural way of life for these settlers,” said Dan Pierce, chairman of the history department at UNC-Asheville and author the newly published book on moonshining, Corn From A Jar. “These early Appalachian people had long traditions of making liquor, and they adapted it to the new grains of the land, particularly corn.”
Dark side of the moonshine
During the 18th and 19th century, several attempts by the U.S. government to tax liquor spurred protest and, in certain situations, violence. According to Pierce, Congress brought about a $2 tax on liquor, an enormous jump from the 20 cents taxed in previous years. Distillers immediately became outlaws, with federal revenuers looking to collect.
“From the start, moonshiners have always had this ‘outlaw’ image,” Pierce said. “Society’s fascination with the moonshiners is part nostalgia, part outlaw, where that person pushes the boundaries, all in an effort to make a living. Once something like that gains momentum, it just takes off.”
In 1876, moonshiner Lewis Redmond found himself in a shootout with a federal marshall. Redmond killed the official and was dubbed “King of the Moonshiners.” After the incident, Redmond relocated to Bryson City, where he continued his distilling empire in Western North Carolina. Sylva writer Gary Carden wrote a play, “The Prince of Dark Corners,” about Redmond, which was also made into a PBS special.
With the popularity of moonshine came stereotypes. Those in other parts of the country often viewed the entire South as a band of outlaws. Though an important aspect of the history of Southern Appalachia, many feel it isn’t the whole story.
“Moonshining is a part of the cultural history here, but not the entire history,” said author, historian and folklorist George Ellison, of Bryson City. “These characteristics of the moonshiner put us in a cubby hole. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not accurate of the entire population and culture.”
Into the mid-20th century, the illegal moonshiners developed new tactics to get their product to clients. Faster, more savvy automobiles graced the twisted backroads of the mountains. Bootleggers customized their vehicles with faster engines in seemingly slow vehicles, stronger axles and leaf springs to not make a heavy load of moonshine obvious when driving down the road.
The 1958 crime-drama thriller “Thunder Road” saw Hollywood introduce their take on the “life of a moonshiner” to the world. Starring Robert Mitchum, the film became a cult classic that perpetuated the outlaw image of moonshiners.
“‘Thunder Road’ definitely fired up a national hype by overly romanticizing moonshining,” Ellison said. “And a lot of people related to it, because almost everyone has a story about trying moonshine.”
Consequently, many of those actual bootleg drivers became pioneers in another Southern tradition — stock car racing. Taking their talents of evading the law, these moonshine drivers, most notably Junior Johnson, were part of the newly formed National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR, which today is America’s biggest spectator sport.
“Moonshine really was integral to the inception of NASCAR,” Pierce said. “Everyone was involved in moonshine, from drivers to track owners to promoters. They were looking for the next thing, and they found it with racing.”
The man behind the ‘shine
Pam Sutton was working at a café in Parrottsville, Tenn., when a skinny, bearded man walked in. Adorned with a rolled cigarette hanging from his lips, trademark bib overalls, long sleeve plaid and floppy hat with a raccoon penis bone through the top, he looked at her and soon walked back out.
“I knew who he was; I knew it was Popcorn,” she said. “He came down again the next day for some business with somebody, and he gave them a card to give me. It said, ‘Call me.’”
From there, a romance blossomed. At the time, Popcorn resided in Parrottsville. He made every effort to win over Pam’s heart. It was a notion many aware of his legend may have been surprised by.
“Personally, he was a very caring, loving man,” Pam said. “He was totally different with me than in public — he treated me like a queen. He was a very romantic guy, and you wouldn’t think that by looking at him.”
The couple was married for two years before Popcorn committed suicide to avoid spending what arguably would have been the rest of his life in prison, given his poor health at the time. In his final years, he was setting the foundation to make his longtime illegal practice legal by starting his own licensed business.
But, he’d never see the fruits of his labors. In his honor, Pam has taken the reins and created “Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey.” The company brings together Pam, J&M Concepts LLC and outlaw country musician Hank Williams Jr., who was a fan of Popcorn’s moonshine and wanted to continue the tradition.
“Moonshine keeps our culture here in Southern Appalachia alive; it’s our history. It’s how people made a living in these mountains, and it keeps Popcorn’s memory alive,” Pam said.
In its fourth year, the Popcorn Sutton Summer Jam, a.k.a. “Hillbilly Woodstock,” is held at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds. The event is Aug. 2-3. Starting as a grassroots get-together of a couple hundred people, the festival has grown to more than 4,000 attendees, according to promoters.
For every batch of moonshine he makes, Cody Bradford is distilling his lineage. The tradition of making ‘shine has been in his family for more than 150 years. The recipe remains the same, and it’s as strong and real as each generation of crafters.
“It’s in my blood; it’s the whole reason I wanted to do this, to keep the tradition alive,” he said. “By learning about moonshine, you’re learning the history behind the hardworking people of these mountains. I want people to know what’s good moonshine and what’s not.”
In 2010, Bradford opened the Howling Moon Distillery in Asheville. Putting out hundreds of gallons of moonshine, Bradford can’t keep up with demand, even with the product only being sold in Western North Carolina.
“Making liquor is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he said. “And doing it legally, I can pass along the tradition without the fear anymore of getting caught.”
In a twist of fate, his wife’s great-great uncle was the federal marshal shot by “King of the Moonshiners” Lewis Redmond in 1876.
“Moonshine isn’t about a bunch of hillbillies getting drunk,” he said. “It’s about people whose only survival was brewing ‘shine. For me, brewing it is a thrill, and it’s part of who I am.”
In recent years, the image of the bootlegger has increased through popular reality shows like “Moonshiners” and “Hillbilly Blood.” But still, how has the public fascination with moonshiners remained so strong through the generations?
“People like outlaws, whether it’s Al Capone, Jesse James or Billy the Kid,” Bradford said. “And moonshiners are the last real outlaws still out there.”
Flowing into modernity
Moonshine arrests and convictions have drastically dropped in recent decades. With illegal trades shifting more to hard drugs and black market materials, the number of stills confiscated is nearly nonexistent in Western North Carolina.
“I’ve been here over eight years and have yet to see one still,” said Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran.
But Bradford assures there is no shortage of bootleggers still operating in Southern Appalachia. He estimates hundreds of ‘shiners are cooking up their trademarks brews to this day, high up in the deep forests, far away from Main Street America.
“There are more moonshiners out there today than I can count,” he said. “They’re smarter these days; they don’t talk about it at all, and they’ve survived.”
And the proof of their existence is in the ‘shine. Just last month, sheriff deputies in Mitchell County (north of Asheville) seized more than 150 gallons of illegal moonshine in a raid on a production facility following a tip.
“It’s not a common occurrence anymore, but we still come across them once in a while,” said Josh Sparks, chief deputy for Mitchell County. “More than anything, we have our sights on the increasing drug problem. It was a good bust, though.”
Sparks said moonshine arrests and convictions are nowhere near the numbers 30 or 40 years ago. He feels moonshiners are keeping their clients closer these days and not expanding as far, where those who do expand tend to be the ones getting ahead of themselves and caught. But, that doesn’t mean public interested has decreased.
“We’ve had more calls about what we were going to do with that seized moonshine than on anything else,” Sparks chuckled. “It all gets poured out and destroyed, but people wanted to know if we ‘would donate a jar here and there to them.’”
Making a stand
Moonshine has remained a line in the sand that places American citizens on one side of the law or the other. The rebellion behind the making and selling of the liquor has pushed through the ages with a “Whack-A-Mole” mentality, where for every moonshiner caught, several more pop up. Co-owner of Twisted Hillbilly Magazine, a key sponsor of the Jam, Jeff Whitaker looks towards Popcorn as a hero to the individual.
“You look at Popcorn like you look at Hank Williams III or Willie Nelson, who were people with their finger in the air, just rebels, and Popcorn was the ultimate rebel,” he said. “Popcorn held his finger in the air ‘til the very end.”
Whitaker noted that Popcorn felt he had already paid his taxes by purchasing the materials and ingredients he used to make his moonshine. For both men, making ‘shine is a form of protest that is an essential right of being an American.
“People can embrace this kind of rebellion; it’s a quiet and harmless rebellion that crosses a broad spectrum,” Whitaker said. “I love the fierce independence of this region. In Southern Appalachia, we want to do our thing and be left alone. You’re either a decent person or not, and that’s the way we measure things in these parts — it’s always been that way.”
And as moonshining rolls into the 21st century, it seems there’s no stopping a storied and proud tradition in Southern Appalachia. Though production numbers may have dwindled, on paper, one can find a jar of white lightning with the slightest of ease. It’s about trust and confidence in doing so, which are key traits of this wild landscape.
“Popcorn was great at marketing himself, and when you’re doing something illegal, and in the public eye, you tend to be in the crosshairs of the law,” Pierce said. “They say Popcorn was ‘The Last One,’ but he wasn’t the end of the line; he was the beginning of a Renaissance for moonshining.”
‘Shining a light on history
During America’s infancy, distillers were able to practice their trade legally, making liquors to not only consume but for trade, medicine and seemingly everything in between. All walks of life from farmers to the President of United States purchased, consumed and enjoyed spirits.
It was an honorable and sacred profession, one that was left alone for decades during the nation’s development. But, that all changed with the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. According to the Library of Congress, in an effort to increase the power of the government and pay off state debts from the Revolutionary War, U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton introduced a new tax on people who made and used whiskey as a means of exchange. The tax sparked a protest, one that was “against taxation without local representation.”
The feuding hit a head in 1794 with protesters attacking the home of a tax inspector who was serving writs to people who hadn’t adhered to paying the tax. President George Washington sent peace commissioners, with thousands of militia later being deployed to quell the rebellion.
The suppression showcased a change in the new nation where resistance could be thwarted by the government. The tax was eventually repealed when President Thomas Jefferson came to office in 1801.
Following the Civil War, another tax on spirits was enacted by the federal government to once again pay for the cost of battle. Already physically and economically devastated by the war, the Confederate States of America felt they couldn’t take another financial blow by allowing the tax in the years during Reconstruction.
“Making moonshine was the primary way people paid their taxes. It was a dependable thing for a cash crop when a lot of these agricultural families of the South couldn’t rely on their farms every year,” said Dan Pierce, UNC-Asheville history professor and author of Corn From A Jar. “Making and transporting liquor was cheaper and more profitable than growing corn. But, by the 1870s, the government started cracking down on the production.”
If a distiller did pay tax on their product, they were legally allowed to keep brewing. But, for small-time farmers and producers, the tax ate up too much of their profit to justify making the liquor.
“Liquor was a poor farmer’s hedge,” Pierce said. “When agriculture in this area went down in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these distillers relied more and more on making moonshine to get by.”
Though a temperance movement to ban alcohol has early roots in this country, it gained significant momentum at the turn of the 20th century. By 1918, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – an action that prohibited the manufacture, transport and sale of alcohol. “Prohibition” was finally repealed in 1933, after years of heightened crime, violence and protest due to the controversial laws.