I had not heard of legendary east Tennessee moonshiner Popcorn Sutton until I happened upon “The Last One,” a 2008 Sucker Punch Pictures documentary depicting Popcorn’s last run, but I immediately recognized Popcorn as a man who could have been some of my kinfolk or at least a neighbor. Dressed in bibbed overalls, a brightly colored checkered shirt and a fedora, he reminded me of the old man who lived up the holler from my family when I was a little girl. Sporting an unkempt beard and staring out at the world with sunken eyes, he called to mind those familiar faces from the old Hatfield and McCoy photos I’ve seen my entire life.
And he employed the same vocabulary — banjer, backerds, yeller, that’un and hurr – as Daddy. Popcorn disappointed me when he pronounced Vienna sausages as “Vi-einer.” Around here, we call them “Vi-ennie.” But at least he used “wahlago” for a while ago.
Popcorn also punctuated damn near every sentence with damn, by God or hell and he chain-smoked. I worried that maybe he shouldn’t be smoking while using a blowtorch, but he seemed to know what he was doing.
Not that I understood most of what Popcorn was doing. I’ll never understand how corn becomes whiskey, but making moonshine sure looks like hard work. I assumed Popcorn, with his hunched back and scrawny body, was in his 80s. At the time of filming, he was in his early-60s.
In addition to showing Popcorn plying his craft, the filmmakers interviewed regional historians and writers who discussed the role moonshine has played in our southern Appalachia heritage. It definitely played a role in my family’s history. Both of my poppaws made liquor in the 1940s. I wouldn’t describe them as professionals, but one served time for his moonshine-making efforts and the other would have, too, had he not outrun the revenuers.
That was so last century. Drug deaths and meth lab busts frequent the local news, but raids on stills? I can’t recall hearing about one. Ever. That’s why I couldn’t believe Popcorn worried about the revenuers coming after him. Surely they had better things to do.
In March 2008, a federal raid on Popcorn’s property yielded three 1,000-gallon capacity stills, hundreds of gallons of moonshine-making ingredients, more than 850 gallons of the finished product, guns and ammunition. (Perhaps “The Last One” did not depict Popcorn’s last run.) Popcorn, who was on probation, pleaded guilty to illegally producing distilled spirits and being a felon in possession of a gun. A year later, shortly before his 18-month prison sentence was scheduled to begin, Popcorn committed suicide.
The agents probably regarded Popcorn’s media appearances, autobiography and self-produced Internet video – yes, you read that right — as nothing more than a criminal giving the law the finger. Still, once I learned of Popcorn’s tragic end, I thought back to what a writer said in “The Last One” — that the only stills he now sees are in museums or at mountain heritage days celebrations.
That’s damn ironic.
I watched “The Last One” on DirecTV’s Audience Network, but according to Sucker Punch’s website, PBS also airs the Emmy-winning documentary so check your local listings. In the meantime, you can watch this trailer for “The Last One,” which begins with Popcorn driving his Model A Ford in search of a suitable, isolated creek by which to place his still.