The following article ran May 22 on the Twisted South site. It is re-posted here with permission.
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton Photo by Neal Hutcheson, Sucker Punch Productions
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was a living legend. The day he committed suicide, he launched himself into the pages of American lore. Since his death he’s become the Paul Bunyan of moonshine. Both men had impressive beards and wore a lot of plaid shirts. Instead of Babe the Blue Ox, there’s a black Model A Ford. Instead of an axe is…well, I guess both Paul and Popcorn carried axes. Paul is given credit for creating the Grand Canyon. Many believe Popcorn’s spirit was responsible for the massive landslide on highway I-40 in North Carolina the day after his second burial. (Yes, second.)
Popcorn was born in the tiny town of Maggie Valley, North Carolina in 1949. His parents, Bonnie and Vader, were hardworking mountain people. They lived in a wooden house perched beside a tumbling stream. A lot of love and life happened in that house. A lot of music, too. Bonnie played fiddle. Vader played spoons. Popcorn and his sister danced. Popcorn loved to dance.
“Your Daddy danced like a limp dish rag!” a long-time resident of Mt. Sterling, North Carolina told me. As one of Popcorn’s daughters, I’ve found myself listening to some absolutely wonderful stories. Almost everyone chuckles while they talk. Stories about drunken geese, tipsy frogs or purple-eyed monkeys have a way of making people laugh.
“They should’ve left your Daddy alone,” many tell me. When they say this their eyebrows come together and they sneer. “They” would be the Law. Popcorn and the Law had a long, textured history. From his first arrest in 1974 to his last in 2008, Popcorn was pursued by the “Man” all over Appalachia.
I think the 1974 arrest is particularly interesting since I was there. Someplace not far from the action was a little six-month-old Sky and her young mother. Not one to tolerate any nonsense, my mother soon left Popcorn and Tennessee. The two of us returned to New England. After a few letters exchanged between my mother and Grandma Bonnie, the South faded away. When I was old enough to ask, I was told that my father was a moonshiner named Marvin from Maggie Valley, North Carolina. I took this at face value and left it alone until I was eighteen when I got a bee in my bonnet and started looking. I found him on the end of a phone line. I lost him after that. I called again, but he was never home for me.
Popcorn was a busy man. Building and running stills is rough work. There are no instant mixes, handy electric plugs or well-paved roads. Supplies are cumbersome. Some say Popcorn had tattoos on his shoulders from the labels of the sacks he carried up the hills. Not true. The only tattoos Popcorn had were the names of two women on his forearms.
Not all of Popcorn’s time was spent climbing to secret spots. Sometimes he was right out in the open, working in his junk shop. This is where most outta’towners met him. A few were lucky enough to get their hands on a jar of the coveted mountain dew.
All the while, Popcorn kept up his adventures on those narrow, twisting dirt roads. Outrunning the Law on a nasty curve, Popcorn crushed his car and his face. He laughed that it took him a whole week to pass all those front teeth. With friends and family, Popcorn honed his art of moonshining and still building. Popcorn tested tools and methods until he became a master of his craft.
I grew from a young slacker with a buzzed head into a grown woman with long hair and a long memory. I did my best to keep collecting information about my father. I got a bit from my mother’s side of the family, and occasionally I’d get a letter from Popcorn’s sister, my amazing Aunt Panzie. The surreal story that emerged was the kind that should be written by Charles Bukowski and narrated by Levon Helm.
Popcorn and his assistant J.B. Rader tending the still. Photo by Neal Hutcheson, Sucker Punch Productions
The book Me and My Likker, written by Ernestine Upchurch, came out when I was in my mid-twenties. When it arrived, I tore open the package and fell into the pages. “I am this man’s daughter,” I told myself. But I didn’t see my name anywhere. Or my mom’s. This irked me. Looking at the stack of information I’d collected, an idea began to grow. I’d write my own book. It took me almost a year to write Daddy Moonshine. Putting all that daddy-daughter drama down in black and white felt like leveling a .38 at my own head. Both sides of my family fought me over it, and friends worried for my mental health.
Popcorn’s fame grew with each book purchased, photo he posed for or jar he sold. People loved his bushy beard, rugged coveralls, and his raunchy sense of humor. Pictures began to appear online. Blog entries praised the wild mountain man of Maggie Valley. Reporters and moviemakers started looking for him. Sucker Punch Productions sought out Popcorn for a documentary on moonshining, Billy Ray Cyrus interviewed Popcorn for the truth about hillbillies, and Johnny Knoxville stopped by to get a good look at the coffin Popcorn kept in his living room. (The same coffin Popcorn was buried in.)
After a bust in 1998, it appears my father behaved himself for a few years, until a fire on Popcorn’s property in 2007 brought Johnny Law sniffing around. Next thing Popcorn knew, he was being arrested for the moonshine still in operation on his property. A slap on the wrist, a fine, and some probation took care of that. Popcorn went back to doing what he did. Another arrest in 2008 was the beginning of the end. Popcorn had violated his probation. In 2009, the judge threw the book at him. This time Popcorn was going to do hard time.
The morning of March 16, 2009 was bright and breezy. Standing eye-to-eye with my book, I decided it was finished. I hit “Save” and dragged a copy to my memory stick. After a quick stop at the printers to order a mock-up, I called up a friend to go four-wheeling for the afternoon.
“I’ve got to be back before six o’clock. They say they’ll have it ready by then,” I said, jumping into the passenger seat. We spent most of the afternoon bumper-deep in muck on the back roads. When the sun began to sink, we headed back into town. “Drop me off at home. I want to change these boots before I go to the printers.” In the kitchen, I dropped my bags, kicked off my boots, and checked my messages.
A fast tap of the keyboard brought up my emails. There were more than usual. They had odd subject lines. “Sorry”, “R.I.P.,” and the like. I opened one from a close friend. It said: “Your father is dead. You should call your family.”
The day Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton committed suicide, he sparked a renaissance of moonshine culture. Local, national and international press all stood up and took notice when the legendary mountain man went down. Even The Wall Street Journal ran his obituary.
I stood stunned and silent in my kitchen for a long moment when the news came that that my father had died. When I came out of my stupor, I grabbed my keys and bolted to the printers to pick up what I’d dropped of that morning. The mock-up copy of my book I’d ordered was useless now.
“I’ll need that back,” I said to the clerk, asking for the memory stick. I took my stick and my one deathless hard copy of Daddy Moonshine and walked slowly back to my apartment. It took two wrenching weeks to add that last, unexpected chapter to my book.
I spoke to my father a month before he died. It was a short conversation. I told him I was sorry that I hadn’t been able to be there for Grandma Bonnie’s funeral. A few short months before, Bonnie Mness Sutton, Popcorn’s mother, a gem of a woman, passed into God’s hands. Losing both Popcorn and Grandma Bonnie within months of each other dealt a serious blow to the family. I cried for days, thinking that my family was going to disappear before I could meet any of them face-to-face. A poor girl in New England has no travel options, even when there’s a whole family at stake.
Thoughts like that stopped me in my tracks for weeks. Everyday things became alien to me. I got lost in the grocery store. I called a friend from the dairy section: “I’m near the butter. Where the hell is the bread?”
Condolences rolled in from around the country. I started to think I must be Glen Campbell since I was “like a rhinestone cow[girl] / gettin’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know.” There were songs, poems, paintings, sculptures: all manner of expressions dedicated to Popcorn. It took the edge off of my morbid thoughts to see all the amazing art created in the name of my father and moonshine.
The wild adventures of a clever bootlegger seem to have inspired musicians the most. In the beginning, the songs sent to me were soulful ballads of a skilled man hunted across the mountains because of his craft. As time passed, the songs became grittier. They became a call to rebellion, announcing the philosophy that a man will live on his own terms until his dying breath. I have no doubt that many of these songs will be gathered in collections of Appalachian music, and a few may even become mountain standards. Popcorn adored music. He’d be as happy as a pig-in-shit to see his legacy continued in the deep croon of a country singer or the heartfelt lyrics of a song.
Filming the documentary The Last One for Sucker Punch Productions. Photo by Ernestine Upchurch
Popcorn was buried beside his parents in a pretty mountain cemetery. Not long after Popcorn was in the ground, the trouble started. Rumblings that his grave was being vandalized began. Soon I heard a rumor that Popcorn’s body had been dug out of the ground and secreted away by his widow. Hearing this, I roared in frustration and got on the phone. Trapped up in New England, I had no way to see for myself. After countless desperate calls to people in the area, a dear cousin from Waynesville, North Carolina braved the twisting dirt road that leads to the old burying ground. She called me from the top of the mountain.
“Are there supposed to be chickens?” she asked. “There’s a cow looking at me…”
“No! There’s supposed to be a big field, with a fence…someplace past that by the tree line,” I told her, looking at the map on my computer.
After battling sucking mud, curious cows, and growing darkness, my cousin found the cemetery. Sure enough: the tombstone was there, but Popcorn’s grave was empty and rocks painted white with the words “I love you Daddy Love [name withheld]” and “Love Litlin your Gran daughter [name witheld].”
The next day, I started making phone calls. “Where is my father’s body?!” I demanded until my voice was in shreds. I asked the police, city workers, and the director of the funeral parlor. No one would tell me. Being a daughter wasn’t enough. The legal power of a widow is substantial.
The only actual vandalism I heard about wasn’t really vandalism at all. Popcorn’s widow, a woman connected to him for hardly two years, had placed her headstone beside his without asking permission from the family who owns the cemetery (not the Suttons.) When the widow’s headstone was found installed beside Popcorn’s, someone pushed it over the hillside. The widow thought this was enough of a reason to dig up Popcorn and hide his corpse.
Through all this darkness, came brilliantly shining lights: my sisters and brothers. Putting out Daddy Moonshine put me on the radar. My father created a lot of secrets. For over three decades, I thought I was an only child. After my father was gone, his secrets began to show themselves. The phone rang and suddenly I was “Sissy”—and more surprisingly, an aunt! I call myself “Ah’nt Sk’iy’ but my nieces and nephews call me “Ant Ska”. My sisters and I were quick to bond. One of my older sisters even got my initials “S.A.S.” tattooed on her leg beside the names of other loved ones.
“The Powers That Be” must’ve heard me crying, because a couple I call the “Angels of Wyoming” reached out generously to fly me to Tennessee. Another angelic couple in Tennessee put together a Sutton family reunion at the Waterville Dam. Before I knew it, I was nestled into a mountainside in North Carolina, locked between the hill, a winding mountain road and a hard-running stream. I was surrounded by family and delighted to be there. After the picnic, we drove to the cemetery to see Popcorn’s empty grave for ourselves. It was a darkly eloquent moment: my sister and I standing on our father’s empty grave, nieces running around like wee sprites, and the elders speaking in hushed tones at the bottom of the hill. All around us, ancient trees rose up to keep us safe. The same curious cows that had eyeballed my cousin came out to take a look at us. I spoke to my grandparents’ graves for a few minutes and then ran off to play with my nieces between the old stones.
A wise woman named Becky wrote to me: “Those who knew Popcorn cannot imagine him at peace in any other cemetery. His mortal remains have been removed but his spirit remains at the bend in the river. His friends and loved ones will continue to visit him at his chosen resting place. We know he’s still there and it’s not us he’s mad at.”
Popcorn’s memorial, organized by his widow, was held in Newport,Tennessee, on October 24, 2009—seven months after his death. My tiny clan of family met before the service to gather our nerves. There were people and reporters everywhere. Under the chapel’s high ceiling, it was standing room only. Behind the podium were wreaths of flowers and other momentos of condolences.
His friends and loved ones will continue to visit him at his chosen resting place. We know he’s still there and it’s not us he’s mad at.
The service was a blur to me. People stood up at the podium and spoke. A woman sang. I His friends and loved ones will continue to visit him at his chosen resting place. We know he’s still there and it’s not us he’s mad at.tried to hear the words, but they kept slipping away. The memorial was terrifying for my little brother and me. I kept my brother, a young man not yet old enough to drive, behind me until we were safe in our seats. All eyes took a turn running us over. We felt like animals in a zoo: the quiet mountain boy and his strange Northern sister.
Before I knew it, I was back outside standing beside the smart black hearse and a pair of elegantly harnessed black horses that would lead my father to his second burial. We left before my father’s casket was lifted into the hearse. I couldn’t watch.
The next day in Asheville, North Carolina, I saw the funeral procession on the cover of a local paper. The article told the story of what my siblings and I had been unwelcome to attend: the (re)burial of Popcorn Sutton in the side yard of his house in Parrotsville, Tennessee.
Just hours after the ground closed over his body for a second time, my Daddy’s spirit punched a mountain beside the main vein through Appalachia on Interstate Highway I-40. A few short miles from his original grave, cascading boulders and debris destroyed a large portion of road. It would take months to clear it. After a second landslide, I got an email from a friend: “Make him stop!” She was only half joking. One of my younger sisters thinks it was our grandparents who brought down the mountain.
“They want their son back,” she said.
It takes a lot of energy to bring down a mountain. Maybe it was all three of them.
I intend on finding a way to return our father’s body beside his parents in that quiet mountain cemetery. The man kept his own casket in his living room and his infamous foot stone (“Popcorn said Fuck you”) by the front porch. His headstone had been in place in the cemetery beside his family for over a decade. He knew what he wanted. His last wishes were ignored.
Photo courtesy of Sky Sutton
In a handwritten will, Popcorn was very clear about his burial. He stated: “That I get buried…beside My Dad Vader Sutton …haul me on the Back of A Pick up Truck to the Grave yard and get Drunker than Hell while they bury my Ass…I do not want No viewing or Preaching or Singing or nothing when they Bury me.” Popcorn didn’t even want a listing in the newspaper when he passed.
Popcorn was a romantic: “I want the ring on my left hand given to E_____.” He was also a bit odd: “Empty my Pockets and give the Content to [name withheld].” The forensics report sent to me from Knoxville lists his pocket’s contents as a watch and a wallet. I wonder if E____ ever got that ring…Popcorn also wrote: “Do Not Embalm me…If any visitors come to the Grave yard [name withheld] will run their ass off…if anyone Brings one damn flower to My Grave to Destroy it as Quick as it is Delivered.”
It’s pretty apparent that being dug up, stored for months, and reburied miles away from his parents after an extremely public memorial were not in Popcorn’s postmortem plans.
To this day Popcorn’s body is still buried in the side yard of his house in Parrotsville, Tennessee, where his widow can ensure no more “vandalism” will occur. Popcorn’s legend continues to grow. With every story, song, and painting, Popcorn’s reputation reaches deeper into the hearts and minds of people across the world. I’m proud to be the daughter of a man whose image is becoming a badge of independence and tradition.
Moonshine is far from extinct. There are fresh faces blowing into the furnaces of new stills. In quiet country coves, tendrils of smoke are still climbing up to the sky. Urbanites are now ordering moonshine cocktails in upscale bars, and suburbanites are beginning to experiment with things their granddaddies did. In Popcorn’s own words: “Alkihol has and will be around as long as time, whether it is for medicine or to get drunk as Hell. I hope I will be there to help them in one way or the other.”
For more information on the book Daddy Moonshine visit Sky’s Facebook page.
Daddy Moonshine is available for $25.00, including shipping and handling.
Please make checks payable to Sky Sutton and mail to:
P.O. Box 331
Northampton, MA 01060
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