The distinguished and sometimes notorious moonshiner Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton died a week ago today in Cocke County, Tennessee, at age 61. Like many descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers, he followed in the tradition of making homemade liquor, building a reputation as being one of the south's top makers of white lightning. He also achieved a cult-hero-outlaw status through various documentaries on the moonshine tradition and through an autobiography entitled Me and My Likker.
But unlike the romantic notions of moonshining as a hardscrabble, yet noble way of survival in the Appalachians, and part of our cultural heritage, it unfortunately is still illegal (Uncle Sam wants his taxes). Already on probation for a July 2007 state charge triggered by a still explosion, and having prior convictions for moonshining and felony assault with a deadly weapon, a raid on Sutton's property last year turned up three 1,000-gallon stills, more than 800 gallons of moonshine, ingredients to make sour mash, and of course guns. Most of the moonshine he kept in a shed and a junk school bus on his property.
This time the sentencing, an 18-month term in federal prison followed by three years on supervised release, was too much for him. His wife found him in his beloved Ford Fairlane parked out in his barn, engine running, apparently dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. No one really knows why, but perhaps he thought prison would be the death of him, and decided to leave this world on his own terms.
This blog post is by no means a proper eulogy for the man whom thousands knew as a gentle soul. Others I'm sure pay a greater tribute and are much more vocal and outraged by his death. I just wanted to light my candle for him as well. To many he was the romantic notion of the moonshiner, like Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard, "never meaning no harm," "making his way the only way he knows how." It is disheartening to me, however, that something couldn't have been done to prevent the loss of such an iconic figure. He will be sorely missed by many, and hopefully never forgotton.
source: J.J. Stambaugh, "Moonshiner 'Popcorn' Sutton May Have Committed Suicide, in Knoxnews.com, March 16, 2009.