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. 

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In search of ‘White Lightnin’: Moonshine in Southern Appalachia

coverIt 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. 

Moonshiner dead in apparent suicide

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, 62, was found dead of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in a car near his Parrotsville, Tenn., residence, days before he was to begin serving an 18-month prison sentence for large-scale moonshine operation.

An incident report filed by the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department says that Sutton was discovered dead in his 1982 Ford Fairmont when his wife, Pam Sutton, returned from running errands.

Sutton, an infamous moonshiner, had been trying to outrun revenuers for more than three decades now. Popcorn grew up in Maggie Valley and called it home for most of his life, but had largely taken up residence in his later years in Parrrotsville, Tenn., the rural and sparsely populated country around Newport.

Still, Popcorn has retained close ties to Maggie Valley, and the town is often viewed as the main stomping ground of the mountain’s most infamous ‘shiner.

“Maggie Valley lost a friend and an ambassador,” said James Carver, a long-time friend of Popcorn’s and a Maggie Valley native. “We have a lot of people come to Maggie Valley that want to meet Popcorn.”

Popcorn has never been secretive about his tendency for making moonshine. He often bragged that he “ran more whiskey than Jack Daniel.” He detailed his brew-making exploits in the book “Me and My Likker,” and in a self-produced video “The Last Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make.” He’s even been known to autograph Mason jars of moonshine.

So it’s no surprise that the law eventually caught up with him. What finally brought him down, however, was a fire at his own home in April 2007 when a still exploded. Stills are known to do that, despite Popcorn’s expert craftsmanship in making them. The fire tipped authorities off that Popcorn was still at it, and wasn’t merely producing the occasionall jar here and there but cranking out hundreds of gallons.

He was handed down light charges at the time, netting nothing more than probation. He apparently got right back to work.

But so did the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who launched a full-scale investigation, including undercover agents that struck deals to buy large quantities of moonshine from him. In March 2008, they raided his home and seized 800 gallons of the illegal liquor, three stills with 1,000-gallon capacities, hundreds of gallons of moonshine-making ingredients such as mash and many guns.

Sutton could have gotten as much as 15 years in prison, but got off with a surprisingly light — relatively speaking — with just 18 months.

Popcorn ran an antique shop in Maggie Valley as recently as a few years ago, where one could supposedly buy a jar of moonshine it they asked the right way. Local authorities allegedly looked the other way, chalking it up to Popcorn being a community fixture.

Popcorn’s attire rarely varied: overalls, a flannel shirt and gray brimmed hat, occasionally adorned with a squirrel tail. His thick shaggy beard and slight frame completed the prototypical image of a backwoods mountaineer.

Popcorn’s nickname dates to a barroom brawl between himself and a popcorn machine. It took his money, but didn’t produce popcorn, eliciting a few swift blows from Sutton to crack open the machine. Aside from his white lightening, Popcorn was known for his crass language and feisty manner.

“If he liked you he liked you, and if he didn’t, you better stay away,” recalled Carver.

While some revile the folkloric status Popcorn has achieved, denouncing him as a common criminal, few can argue that Popcorn was a bridge to the past, a window on a vanishing part of Appalachian culture.

“He comes from the old era,” said Maggie Valley Police Chief Scott Sutton, describing Popcorn Sutton as the last of his breed. “Popcorn was unique. There aren’t any more ... not in his form or fashion, that’s for sure.”

— Julia Merchant contributed to this article

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