As long as water runs downhill: The story of Popcorn Sutton
People have been making moonshine almost since the day water started running downhill, and it seems like people have been talking about enigmatic Appalachian moonshiner Popcorn Sutton for just as long. But now, for the very first time, a full-length biography attempts to explore the conflicted life and legacy of Appalachia’s most (in)famous moonshiner.
“I studied film and found my footing making documentary films,” said Neal Hutcheson, a Chapel Hill native and author of The Moonshiner Popcorn Sutton (Reliable Archetype, Raleigh, 2021). “I really found my footing in Appalachia making documentary films there and found my own voice, so I’ve specialized in cultural topics, particularly in communities that are — well, every community is experiencing change, but I’ve focused on cultural change, I guess you would say.”
An Emmy award-winning documentarian, Hutcheson comes from the perspective of an explorer, not only of culture but also of the elements that make up culture: the geography, the language, the music, the people.
“I used to backpack all the time when I was growing up and I loved Western North Carolina, but I didn’t know anything about the people or culture. I just knew the landscape,” he said. “I can remember passing through little towns and how they looked different from where I grew up and thinking, who lives here? What are their lives like? It was just kind of a passing thought so it’s kind of funny that I went so deep in that direction later in life.”
One of his early films dealing with the culture of Southern Appalachia resulted in Hutcheson establishing a long friendship with one of Western North Carolina’s most unique personalities.
“I found myself in Maggie Valley. I was working on a documentary called “Mountain Talk” and a couple of people I talked to said, ‘Oh, you need to meet Popcorn.’ I didn’t know what that meant,” Hutcheson said. “It sounded like trouble.”
Popcorn Sutton (left) is pictured with his longtime still hand JB Rader. Neal Hutcheson photo
Born in Maggie Valley in 1946, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton earned his nickname during a bar fight with a faulty popcorn machine, and it stuck to him like a burr on overalls.
“Eventually I found him, he was running a little junk shop at the curve of the road heading out of Maggie Valley towards Cherokee. The first time I went, he wasn’t there, but there were people minding the shop and I was with a couple of grad students and the people at the shop there sold us a jar of moonshine. That was such a surprise. I didn’t really know people were still making it. In fact, I didn’t even trust that it was real. I thought maybe they’re buying something from the liquor store and putting it in a jar,” said Hutcheson. “I know much better now.”
Eventually, Hutcheson met up with Sutton, who was raised in a region where moonshining was an ancient craft practiced by learned masters. It became, to an extent, Sutton’s entire identity.
“I’ve made all kinds of liquor in my time,” Sutton told Hutcheson in his 2002 film, “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make.”
“I’ve made the fightin’ kind, the lovin’ kind, the cryin’ kind. This I’m gonna make today got four damn fights to a pint.”
But that identity is heavily mythologized and riddled with contradiction — particularly in how some Appalachians are simultaneously revolted by the popular stereotypes embodied in Sutton but respect the iconic ideal of the isolated, independent mountaineers of old.
Hutcheson deftly navigates the cultural concerns surrounding Sutton in his 240-page work, which seems to be a cross between a beautifully designed coffee table book and a biography backdropped by scads of context and local color that ensure the stories about Popcorn Sutton will continue — just as long as water runs downhill.
The Smoky Mountain News: The last time I interviewed [Western North Carolina novelist] David Joy, who wrote the foreword to your book, he said, “If you look at what’s happening to mountain culture … it’s being erased at an unfathomable rate. If you look at what’s happening in Cherokee, it’s matter of cultural reclamation at an unprecedented scale.” The crux of your work deals with heritage in transition. How does a documentarian or a writer go about depicting this heritage and its transition accurately?
Neal Hutcheson: That’s a very important question that anybody in my position needs to ask themselves constantly. I’ve done so many documentaries in Appalachia, and the book gave me an opportunity to reflect on that and be mindful of issues of representation and stereotypes all along. I’ve foregrounded those issues, but even so I recognized that I was bringing something to the table that recreated errors of the past. I’m not necessarily saying I made errors exactly, but I selected one part of the mountain population that I focused on, and that was it. It’s the part that ethnographers and historians and documentary photographers have always focused on, even though that part of the population is dwindling. So that’s who I was looking for to represent Appalachia, but hopefully I complimented that by foregrounding the issue of representation and performance in those programs, and especially in the book.
SMN: One of the interesting things about the book is that it’s very much written in Popcorn’s unique vernacular. How did you pull that off without making it appear condescending or patronizing?
NH: It was important to me that I was able to keep a lot of the book in his voice and take it out of my own voice, which is that of an outsider and an observer. It’s one of the things that I’m really proud of about the book — that I gave so much of it over to him. I was able to do that because I had interviewed him numerous times and I have a lot to pull from. He tells his own story in his own voice. I discovered it’s very tricky to transcribe dialect and there’s a lot of unusual choices. There’s a lot of unusual decisions that you have to make, but I added some ancillary material talking about this because it was so unexpected that it was a challenge to transcribe the dialect.
SMN: A large segment of this culture reviles being stereotyped as the crude, overall-wearing backwoods moonshiner, but then we have another segment of the population that reveres these same people as outlaws and folk heroes. Popcorn was both of those things, wasn’t he?
NH: That’s right on target. In the early 20th century, those stereotypes were already entrenched in the American imagination. On the one hand you had this kind of degenerate backwards hillbilly stereotype who was alternately comical or dangerous, and then on the other hand you had this “noble mountaineer,” like our pioneer ancestors. Believe it or not, those stereotypes are still in play, they’ve just kind of settled down a little bit because we’ve gotten so familiar with some of the extreme examples in film and television and cartoons.
A point that I make in the book — and this is tricky territory, contentious territory — is that not all mountain people reject the stereotypes at this point. In fact, they’ve found them to be a convenient emblem of their heritage, even though they recognize on some level that it’s not how they themselves look or their neighbors look or their parents look, and I think that that underlies a lot of Popcorn’s popularity. He embodies a lot in the heritage that is being lost or has been lost that they’re proud of.
A page from Popcorn’s notebook provides insight into his roots. Neal Hutcheson photo
SMN: Do you think having to live with those two stereotypes in the same body — the fiercely independent, “noble mountaineer” and the cartoon character that everybody wanted to see driving his Model A Ford — affected Popcorn?
NH: The first thing I would like to say is that in talking about stereotypes and how he invoked them, Popcorn was a talented performer but it wasn’t a put-on, either. Everything that he was pulling from and putting into play was from his legitimate cultural background in his community. He just knew when to lean in and exaggerate a little bit.
How did it affect him? He’s the only person who would have said that we’d still be talking about him now, 12 years after his death. He always kind of banked on the fact that people couldn’t get enough of him but I think he was probably very surprised at the intensity with which people kind of grabbed onto him. He didn’t like to be called a hero, because he was an outlaw and that was his identity. When he was having legal troubles at the end of his life and people kept calling him up saying, “I’m pulling for you, you’re my hero” or whatever, he said, “The next time somebody says that I’m going to say ‘F—- you!’ and slam the phone down.”
I saw him kind of become a little more extreme towards the end of his life, a little bit more over the top, because I think he needed to take control of the narrative and it was bigger than him and it was kind of running away with him. And now that he’s gone, I mean, it did run away with him. That’s one of the reasons why I made the book was to address his legacy and how people think of him today.
Popcorn's notebook, complete with plans for a still. Neal Hutcheson photo
SMN: Whether he knew it or not, Popcorn was a somewhat of a contemporary of other cultural emissaries like James Dickey, who wrote the book that eventually became the movie “Deliverance,” and even Horace Kephart. Both of those ended up featuring negative portrayals of Appalachians. Do you feel that Popcorn was aware of the negative aspects of what he was doing?
NH: In Southern Appalachia, particularly in the areas that have been in constant contact with tourists before the mid-20th century, I feel like a culture of performance was nourished by the interaction of the mountain people with outsiders. The outsiders were bringing money that mountain people wanted. It can buy a better life.
I don’t see anything shameful in it. I think there was a kind of an entrepreneurial spirit to supply that. That underlies Popcorn’s talent for working with people and using his own image. There’s a parallel situation that was a little easier to see over in Cherokee where they too were subject to tourists who wanted to see where the “real Indians” were, the ones you’d seen in the movies with the big feathered bonnets and everything like that, the southwestern Indians. So they learned to do that over in Cherokee. It wasn’t their own traditions and customs, but they were desperately poor. You can’t really blame them for that.
I’ll go out on a limb here and defend Kephart because I know that he has a bad name and he routinely gets trashed by every generation of students from Appalachia coming up who go away to school. They discover him as being a huge promoter of Appalachian stereotypes, but if you actually read Kephart, like if you read Our Southern Highlanders , it’s not that bad. His error is the same that I’ve made. If you look at my documentary about Popcorn and you think all mountain people are like this — and I hopefully did not give that impression — Kephart made sweeping, broad statements about one portion of the population.
SMN: What sort of sense did you get from Popcorn about valuing his history, his ancestors, the community in which he was born and raised?
NH: I think that value was intrinsic to him in the sense that he refused to change and adapt. Like making moonshine. That was really out of keeping with the times. It was dated. You could look at him as a living anachronism, but he really was just living the way he grew up. I’d see this with country people sometimes too — half of my family come from farm people — but he really prized old things.
I loved visiting his place outside of Parrottsville [in Tennessee] where he made moonshine. He built his own house and you see pictures of that in the book. It was all made of these rough-cut pieces of lumber that he got from a sawmill. So he made a house and then he had a shed that was an outbuilding. That was his still-house. And then he had another work building. When I did more research to make sure I knew what I was talking about in the book, I learned that this replicated the settlement patterns of the Europeans who came to Appalachia. They lived typically in a circle in the woods and they had this sort of encampment of little houses and things like that, so whether on purpose or by instinct he really replicated the world that he grew up in.
Ruby Hutcheson illustration
SMN: Another aspect of Appalachian culture seems to be the realization that the veil between this world and the next is very thin here. Popcorn had his own coffin in his house.
NH: He was very interested in death, specifically his own death, the whole entire time I knew him.
It was probably common in older Appalachian culture that he came from that people were more comfortable with death and with their own death. I’ve interviewed other people who talked about how if they found a good stone or something like that, they they’d come back and cart it home somehow and save it for their own headstone. What Popcorn did in preparing for his own death years in advance was purchasing his own coffin and his own foot stone, quite famously [it reads, “Popcorn said F—- you”].
It also kind of speaks to a moment where Popcorn had made money, and what do you spend money on? What did he value? I think he bought a chainsaw and some new boots and he bought a coffin because that’s something that everybody needs eventually.
SMN: The end of Popcorn’s life was an interesting period for an interesting man. When’s the last time you talked to him and what did he say?
NH: I spoke to him a few days before he died. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we talked periodically. I had been up there recently in January for his sentencing, but it was just kind of a normal conversation, which with him was always kind of funny and just shooting the bull and talking about this and that. But he did make a point of thanking me and expressing gratitude for the documentaries that we had done together and the work we’d done together and the adventures that we’d had. When the news came a few days later that he had taken his life, after the shock it was sort of like, “Oh, right. He was calling all his friends and saying goodbye.”
Some might say this photo captures the essence of moonshiner Popcorn Sutton. Neal Hutcheson photo
SMN: But then he was resurrected – there was the rumor that in typical outlaw fashion his death was faked and everybody was in on it and he died with his boots off, warm and cozy and free several years later. There’s no evidence that this is even remotely true, but how did that rumor cement the myth of this very mortal man?
NH. I have a lot of sympathy for that story. I’ve had dreams several times, periodically I do, where I see him and I talk to him and he’s fine and that exact story is true. He just kind of wanted to escape the public eye and the jail sentence and things like that. With many of us, there’s a wish that he was still around to talk to, but I think what plays into the myth and the legend of Popcorn Sutton more is the fact that he did die and the fact that he didn’t live to go through a prison sentence and come out of that in diminishing health, his life winding down slowly.
I think that if you look at all folk heroes, they die. They get killed. He fits that template. I think that’s why people sometimes say that he was killed by the government that pursued him and prosecuted him. They like to say that the government killed him. I think the fact that he died cemented his legend more than anything, but the fact that stories sprung up about him — I find that a wonderful example of how folk stories originate. Most of the folk stories we know are rooted in the past, but this one, we got to see it happen in real time.
Free virtual book reading and Q&A with Neal Hutcheson
Join Neal Hutcheson, author of The Moonshiner Popcorn Sutton, for an online book reading and interactive question-and-answer session. Sponsored by Blue Ridge Books and hosted by SMN’s Cory Vaillancourt, the event is free and open to the public and will be held via Zoom, but registration is required. Copies of Hutcheson’s book — adorned with dozens of stunning full-color photos that capture Sutton’s life — are available for purchase at Blue Ridge Books, 428 Hazelwood Ave., Waynesville.
• Time: 10 a.m.
• Date: Saturday, May 1
• Location: bit.ly/MoonshinerPopcorn
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Great webinar. I have to get the book. Thank you