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The Last Hillbilly Hero

Crime, whiskey & homemade sex machines: The life, death and legacy of Popcorn Sutton, America's greatest moonshiner.

The grave of the last American outlaw sits off a dirt road in the backwoods of Maggie Valley, North Carolina, the hillbilly haven where Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, the most notorious moonshiner ever, lived and died in the wildest of ways. The most notable thing about the grave? It’s empty.

I’m here to follow the path of Sutton’s exhumed bones and unravel the mystery behind this modern-day legend. A third-generation moonshiner, born in 1946, Popcorn spent his life distilling the secret recipe for corn whiskey that his Scotch-Irish forefathers brought over cen­turies ago. His white lightning wasn’t just potent and sweet—it was illegal. And Pop­corn, who refused to pay taxes and con­sidered moonshine part of his “don’t tread on me” heritage, wore his rebel badge with pride. As Hank Williams Jr. says of Popcorn, “This guy was real Appalachian Americana. He was a folk hero.” Even in death his battles wage on: Popcorn’s whiskey recently became available legally for the first time, but a family feud over his legacy shows no signs of resolution.

As I discover over several sweltering days and clandestine jugs of moonshine, Popcorn left a twisted trail: scorned women, abandoned kids, com­pli­cit cops, even homemade sex machines, exploding stills, and the tale of a throat-slit fiddler on the side of the road. At the center of it all was a guy who, right up until his bizarre death, defied his stereotype as much as he seemed to fulfill it. To the fans and celebs who came from around the world to buy his booze, Popcorn was the banjo-picking cracker with the long beard, grimy overalls, and bawdy stories. But to those who knew him, he was something more: a brilliant self-promoter and chemist who ultimately despised the persona he had crafted as expertly as his booze. “He hated the persona,” says his widow, Pam Sutton. Through it all, there was just one thing that guided him: his likker (as he liked to spell it). “I can brag about one thing,” Popcorn once said in his thick Southern drawl. “Making likker. They ain’t no damn body that can beat me making likker.” And, in the end, he chose to die rather than get beat.

Marvin Sutton’s legend began when he beat up the snack machine with a pool cue. A scrawny teen with big ears and droopy eyes, he had just watched the machine eat his quarters without dispensing his popcorn, so he whacked it repeatedly with his pool stick and broke the dang thing. From that moment on, the locals called him Popcorn—a reminder that this was one moonshiner you didn’t want to cross. As he once said, “I don’t bother nobody and nobody better damn sure not mess with me.”

Popcorn began making whiskey in his youth near what he called the Bend of the River, a leafy spot where, decades later, his empty grave would sit. It was Popcorn’s daddy, Vader, who taught him how to make and run the moonshine as deftly as the Suttons before him. The family descended from the wave of immigrants who brought their whiskey recipes to the area when they arrived in the 1700s. Whiskey production became ingrained in early Appalachian culture, thanks in part to the region’s perfect climate for growing sweet corn.

When the federal government tried to tax the stuff in the late 1700s, the mountainside distillers violently fought back in what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The outlaw spirit soared during Prohibition, when demand for moonshine exploded and bootlegging families—like NASCAR racer Junior Johnson’s and the brothers in this fall’s Lawless—became revered. No bootlegger, however, would be­come as enigmatic as Popcorn. Though he looked like Snuffy Smith, he had the mind of a mountain Edison and evolved his family still into an ingenious underground moonshine machine. Seussian contraptions of barrels and metal tubing, Popcorn’s stills could be set up and dismantled quickly at the riverside, just in case the cops screeched up. To distinguish himself from the competition, he took pride in quality. He used the freshest white corn for his mash and the coldest, cleanest stream water. While unscrupulous moonshiners distilled their booze through antifreeze-caked radiator pipes (capable of killing a drinker), Popcorn used only new copper tubing.

Popcorn’s stuff wasn’t just clean—it was so tasty that locals treasure their last mason jars of it to this day. At several points in my interviews, people would slip away and return with dusty jugs of Popcorn’s concoctions. While his standard moonshine tasted like sweet, buttery corn, his infusions—pears, peaches, figs, black cherries—cemented his greatness. One night I sit outside the Cocke County fire station, near Popcorn’s home in Parrotsville, Tennessee, swigging apricot moonshine with the fire chief’s stout, gray-haired wife. “Ain’t nobody make it better than this,” she cackles over a sip. In a cabin Popcorn built in the woods, I swill from an old jar of his cinnamon and cider “apple pie” moonshine with Ernestine Upchurch, a bawdy older woman in white pants and a polka-dot shirt, who dated Popcorn prior to his marriage and describes herself as the love of his life. “He always stayed true to his craft,” Upchurch tells me, “which was making liquor.”

As industrious about marketing his booze as he was about making it, Popcorn spent decades traveling the South, stealthily pawning jars from the back of his vintage rides. To elude the cops, he switched up the cars often—it was a ’46 Willis Jeep one trip, a ’53 Ford convertible the next. In Maggie Valley, he opened an antique shop as a front, soon a destination for eager buyers from across the region. If the strangers seemed trustworthy, Popcorn would take their cash, about $40 per gallon at his peak, and tell them to pick up their moonshine from one of his secret drop boxes hidden in the woods: a baby casket or an old toilet.

Buyers came from miles around to sample his goods, and Popcorn’s celebrity grew. In the ’90s he authored a ribald autobiography, Me and My Likker, which he sold on the Internet. Willie Nelson had him onstage at a local show, and Johnny Knoxville taped a visit to Popcorn’s cabin. Knoxville marveled at the wood-burned sign over the bedroom doorway inside that read "this is a watch yourself fuck and eat pussy bedroom." Popcorn’s homemade cunnilingus contraption hangs in the doorway to this day, as I see when his widow, Pam Sutton, a heavyset, short-haired woman in a sleeveless brown shirt and jean shorts, gives me a tour of the cabin her husband built by hand. The pulley consists of two ropes attached to a pair of Timberland boots, so that Pam’s legs could be more easily hoisted in the air. As Popcorn once bragged, “I’m the only man I know of around here that’s got a two-inch dick and a six-inch tongue and knows how to use both of ’em.”

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