I first learned about Popcorn Sutton by trawling the viewing options on TV (if that is still a real term) one evening. Since I am a North Carolinian who loves the mountains, Smokey and otherwise, and since my parents, raised in rural Kentucky, were unguarded enough to talk sometimes about moonshine, and since I had married a real gen-you-wine mountain man with the accent to prove it, I knew I had to see this film production by the dynamic director and intrepid recorder of rural life, Neal Hutcheson. Through Hutcheson’s multilayered view, I realized that there’s a strain of Popcorn in all of us independent folks who choose to live even a little bit different from the norm, and especially those of us who take the path of self-taught self-sufficiency in imitation, often, of an older generation of people just like Popcorn. My curiosity took me to seek out more film materials about Popcorn, and to find that Hutcheson had recently published a coffee-table style photo-and-narrative book about this crazy old codger, The Moonshiner Popcorn Sutton.
Sutton was a life-hardened man chiseled and carved out of the rocks and trees of his Appalachian birthplace; he has been lauded by fans from just about everywhere for maintaining the old ways he was set in.
About 20 years ago, Neal Hutcheson first made his way to visit Popcorn, first in his birthplace in western North Carolina, and later at the wild, east Tennessee haunts of this man who, Hutcheson records, “seemed to have stepped out of Appalachian yesteryear.” Raised in the backwoods in what would now seem abject poverty, Sutton would acquire his famous nickname after a fight with a vending machine and would choose the time-honored profession of the region: manufacturing moonshine whiskey. His economic theory was simple: he bought the ingredients, manufactured the product, reaped the profits. But like most of the Scots and Irish settlers in those remote peaks and hollers, he was self-made and stubborn as the proverbial mule.
Hutcheson and I agree about the weight of Popcorn’s ancestry in shaping his ways, his roughness, and his refusal to rely on other people or systems to support those ways. Neal says, “Popcorn picked up on the disposition of the community he was raised in, which was and remains fiercely independent, an attitude that can be traced back hundreds of years to Ireland and Scotland and which was continually reinforced by the experiences of mountain people, particularly poor mountain people, in North America. That independence, in his case, became further entrenched by the regard afforded him as a moonshiner, a practitioner of an often-mythologized craft, thought to be epitomized by the Whiskey Rebellion and the fierce battles with revenuers in the late 19th century. So, to a certain extent, his reputation and the public affirmation that making moonshine gave him ultimately left him no other option than to embody the storied independence of mountain people in the most dramatic way possible. Which he did. Live free or die.”
Popcorn would neither charge taxes nor pay taxes on what he vended. He was a master of his trade, relying on tricks and his innate grasp of chemistry, machinery, and fire management, all transcribed by Neal Hutcheson in vibrant accents picked up by the author’s practiced ear: “Always when I hauled a load of likker, a good time to haul it was when it’z a-rainin’. The law’s not too apt to stop you when it’s a pourin’ rain down, unless you done somethin’ pretty damn bad.”
It occurred to me as I read The Moonshiner Popcorn Sutton that Popcorn was a homesteader who’d never known any other way of life. He inherited what he had and kept it up to a livable, workable standard by his own hands and true grit. When I asked Neal about this, he had a lot to say, having observed Popcorn for long periods of time in his element:
“Yes. If you spent a day, almost any day, at Popcorn’s place in East Tennessee you couldn’t miss that he brought a lot of self-developed skills into keeping his business going. I think this is representative of many people in that part of the world, and in the immediate area at least he was not too exceptional in that regard. In addition to distillation itself, there was a lot of supportive craft around making moonshine and living in a way that allowed him to do it, including welding, carpentry, and construction… Not all of it terribly skillful, but always adequate, and in the case of the house he built and lived in, unique. Towards the end of his life, when he had lost his ability to make moonshine due to a fire and a series of arrests, he grew a large garden on the site where his stills had been.
“He was incredibly resourceful, and proud of it. It was the way he had been raised, in a family and a community where people still bartered for what they needed, where—if they were lucky—people had a milk cow and a few chickens. Popcorn’s mother used to churn the butter from their cow and sell it in town on the weekends to buy groceries for the family, and this was in the 1950s! Popcorn saved a lot of things that most people would throw away and always pointed it out when he used a scrap of one thing or another. ‘I don’t waste nothin’,’ he would say.”
With his signature droopy overalls, long, bushy beard and hand-painted signs like “Moonshine shack keep yore dam ass out” gracing his business property, Popcorn became both notorious and acceptably known in the region and beyond and was sometimes invited to large outdoor gatherings just to add to the country ambiance. Such greats as Willie Nelson and Earl Scruggs were happy to meet with him. But when praised as a “hero” for flaunting societal norms, Popcorn would scornfully, albeit proudly, respond that he was a “lowlife.”
Neal Hutcheson has created a niche for himself in academia and the wider world through his award-winning film documentaries exploring the nuance of various local cultures and languages and has produced three films about Sutton: This Is the Last Dam Likker I’ll Ever Make, The Last One, and Popcorn Sutton: A Hell of a Life. His new book includes numerous recorded monologues by the moonshiner, whose accent and sentence construction will add an authentic feel to anyone familiar with the complex—sometimes harsh—sounds of “hill-speak,” while introducing it to less trained ears. The photography in The Moonshiner Popcorn Sutton is a treasure in itself; it captures Popcorn at work and relaxation, under the green cover of the forests where his still and its jars of liquid fire were well concealed. Hutcheson examines the theory that Appalachian culture, as embodied in Sutton’s colorful personage, is something of a figment – yet, too, it absolutely exists for those willing to seek it out, parse it and give it parlor space as the author has done.
Consulting with Hutcheson, I wondered if he had any insights for homesteaders based on the keen observations he had made during his work with Popcorn. Here’s his thinking: “Popcorn actually conformed to the expectations of his community, and the people he was raised around, so he’s no iconoclast. At the same time, that community is itself an outlier in the larger scheme of things, heavily stigmatized over time by the people with the most power in society, the ones who determine standards of proper behavior. So, if you aspire to self-sufficiency and want to disconnect, and that goes against the grain, you may not find a lot of support for that around you. So, take a lesson from Popcorn, be stubborn, and find your people. Above all, we are social animals. The homesteading lifestyle, if that is where you are drawn, need not equal isolation. Your family and peers may not understand your motivations, but as you create the life you want and live by your own principles, they will come to admire you and even look to you as an example.”
In Popcorn, Hutcheson met the perfect embodiment of those unspoken ideals to introduce to the wider world: a man who chose to cling to the past, to preserve (in words and liquid) what he believed was worth preserving, and to answer to no greater law than his own simple conscience. Popcorn Sutton’s legacy is not in worldly goods but in his unique character that will, through Neal Hutcheson’s careful, caring collation, live on.