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Obituary Of Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, A Tennessee Moonshiner

March 22, 2009

UPDATE WITH “POPCORN” SUTTON VIDEOS…CLICK HERE—watch his old-fashioned memorial service.

As I have stated before, I love a well written, and memorable obituary.  That is why I bring to your attention this great remembrance of Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton from this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal.    I read this while eating breakfast today, and love the imagery that this story conveys.


A scrawny, long-bearded mountain man with a foul mouth and a passing acquaintance with copper tubing and kettles, Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton seemed the embodiment of moonshiners of yore.

Brought up in rural Cocke County, Tenn., identified as one of four “moonshine capitals of the world” in the corn-whiskey history “Mountain Spirits,” Mr. Sutton learned the family trade from his father. The practice goes back to the Scots-Irish, who brought it to the New World, and it wasn’t illegal until after the Civil War, says Dan Pierce, chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

“This is something that legitimately is an expression of the culture of this region,” Mr. Pierce says.

Like his forebears, Mr. Sutton had brushes with the law, and was first convicted of selling untaxed liquor in the early 1970s. He mostly kept out of trouble after that, though friends say his nickname came from an unfortunate encounter with a balky barroom popcorn machine. But he was well known as a distiller around his native Parrottsville.

He was a familiar figure at the Misty Mountain Ranch Bed & Breakfast in nearby Maggie Valley, N.C., wearing faded overalls and with a back stooped, he said, from decades of humping bags of sugar into the hills. He picked the banjo and serenaded guests on the inn’s porch. He helped decorate the $155-a-night Moonshiner suite at the inn with some still hardware.

Mr. Sutton put a modern spin on his vocation, appearing in documentaries and even penning an autobiography, “Me and My Likker.” Souvenir shops in Maggie Valley sold his video, “The Last Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make,” and even clocks with his image on them.

Other moonshiners have gone legit and cashed in; a former Nascar driver and moonshiner now offers Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon in Southern liquor stores. But Mr. Sutton insisted on earning a living the old-fashioned way, and in 2007, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives busted him with 850 gallons of moonshine, stored in an old school bus on his property.

He was convicted in 2008 and was due to report to prison Friday, his widow, Pam Sutton, told the Associated Press. Instead, facing the verdict and ill health, he was found dead by Ms. Sutton at the age of 62 on Monday, and authorities suspect carbon-monoxide poisoning, according to the AP. The Cocke County district attorney’s office said it is investigating the death.

Although Tennessee was once a hotbed of moonshine and federal “revenuers” pursued bootleggers through the hills, an attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee in Greeneville says he couldn’t remember the last federal prosecution of a moonshiner.

“Modern-day moonshining is the manufacture of methamphetamine,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregg L. Sullivan says. “Tennessee is in the top five states nationally.”

Ms. Sutton discovered her husband in his green Ford Fairlane. “He called it his three-jug car,” she told the AP, “because he gave three jugs of liquor for it.”

  1. Joe permalink
    November 3, 2009 4:15 PM

    I agree with what you said. It is funny that a family like the Kennedy’s can get rich and become a prominent family in the U.S. by paying bribes to the right people and committing much more heinous crimes than Popcorn ever could. But the ATF decided to go after someone who wasn’t bothering anyone and is recognized as a cultural icon in his area simply because he didn’t know the right people or pay them off.

    It is a damn shame what/who our government decides to investigate/prosecute simply because it is so much easier. Of course after twenty some odd years and billions of dollars spent, drugs like cocaine are still rampant and there hasn’t even been a noticible dent in the black market. But keep on with your taxes. The govt. is appropriating your dollars smarter than you ever could!! *wink *wink

  2. Laurie permalink
    September 21, 2009 11:54 PM

    I live in Haywood county and have lived across the road from Popcorns Antique stand years ago. My boys used to go over and talk to him frequently. He never minded and as he would collect cans, my boys would spend hours helping him stomp on them and put them in a bag.
    He was one of a kind and the last living Moonshiner, it’s a great loss to Maggie Valley as many of tourists would come in hopes of meeting the Legend.
    He will be solely missed!!!

  3. KyThunder permalink
    July 26, 2009 10:41 AM

    God bless you Popcorn!

    Some are keeping the art and tradition alive still!!

  4. Cole Thorne permalink
    July 2, 2009 10:56 PM

    Personally never knew the gentleman, but I knew highly of his “job”. Sad to say that he will be missed by not only myself, but also many others. Rest in peace Popcorn and may the moonshine whiskey distilleries long live as an Appalachian tradition.

  5. Btenda Logan permalink
    May 17, 2009 7:09 PM

    My husband and I are sorry for the lost of a legendary part of the Appalachia mountains of Tennessee, I feel that he was explode and taken advantage of.
    My husband and I watched the documentary of Popcorn Sutton.we said he should not have agreed to let them film him actually making moonshine because he probably didn’t realize that he was setting himself up for the Federal Government to come after him. Even through he was doing something illegal by modern day society he was living in his part of society not main stream society. He was not selling moonshine like the bootleggers sell their illegal whiskey and the drug dealers sell their illegal drugs, he was in the mountains during what came natural to him, he was not getting rich from what he was doing.
    I know what he did was not right but exposing him to get something to make was not right either.

  6. Rick Carpenter permalink
    March 31, 2009 10:29 AM

    Oh, I’m a good old Rebel soldier, now that’s just what I am;
    For this “Fair Land of Freedom” I do not give a damn!
    I’m glad I fit against it, I only wish we’d won,
    And I don’t want no pardon for anything I done.

    I hates the Constitution, this “Great Republic,” too!
    I hates the Freedman’s Bureau and uniforms of blue!
    I hates the nasty eagle with all its brags and fuss,
    And the lying, thieving Yankees, I hates ’em wuss and wuss!

    I hates the Yankee nation and everything they do,
    I hates the Declaration of Independence, too!
    I hates the “Glorious Union” — ’tis dripping with our blood,
    And I hates their striped banner, and I fit it all I could.

    I followed old Marse Robert for four years, near about,
    Got wounded in three places, and starved at Point Lookout.
    I cotched the “roomatism” a’campin’ in the snow,
    But I killed a chance o’ Yankees, and I’d like to kill some mo’!

    Three hundred thousand Yankees is stiff in Southern dust!
    We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
    They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot,
    But I wish we’d got three million instead of what we got.

    I can’t take up my musket and fight ’em now no more,
    But I ain’t a’gonna love ’em, now that’s for sartain sure!
    I do not want no pardon for what I was and am,
    And I won’t be reconstructed, and I do not care a damn!

    R.I.P. Popcorn

  7. Henry permalink
    March 25, 2009 8:58 AM

    Popcorn says **** you, too, revenuers.

  8. Bruce permalink
    March 25, 2009 4:25 AM

    You’re right…the Feds took away a “legend” of the “old school” because he was an “easy mark”…..Maybe they should be doing some “real work” like busting and destroying meth labs….but that might overtax their little “9-5” minds….

  9. Bruce permalink
    March 25, 2009 4:18 AM

    Pam, my heart goes out to you because “Popcorn” will always live in our hearts….I even named one of my pups “Popcorn” when he was born last year and I’ve never taken a “swig” of moonshine in my life but I was just so impressed by the independence of “Popcorn” and his way of life….By WHY did he take his life??…..he could have done 18 months “standing up” ( and been out in 12)…..

    There are far worse things than moonshining….Maybe the Feds should conentrate on some of the “meth” labs in the woods instead of the “liquor stills” but for them, that would be too much work…they’d rather just go for the “easy” marks….

    Pam, just remember your “good man”, hold him close always as we all will….Yes, he was “scrawny” to my “large”, bearded to my shaven face and “Loud” to my “Quiet”….but I will always remember him as larger than myself and I am the a better man for having known him….GOD BLESS AND KEEP YOU!!!……

  10. March 22, 2009 8:46 PM

    Appalachia (and America) has just become a far less colorful place. Back in the 1970s, my father visited a friend in North Carolina who took him to see a real moonshine operation run by some friends of his. Dad was impressed by the quantity of well-maintained, shiny copper equipment, though not by the quality of the product, since they didn’t bother aging it in oak barrels for several years. It’s sad that the federal government felt the need to expend resources going after an old moonshiner instead of focusing on meth labs.

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