The Last Hillbilly Hero
Crime, whiskey & homemade sex machines: The life, death and legacy of Popcorn Sutton, America’s greatest moonshiner.
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.”
One Christmas at the Cocke County police department, deputy Armando Fontes got a gift from a mysterious man with a long white beard. But this wasn’t Santa Claus—it was the town’s most notorious outlaw, Popcorn Sutton, and he was passing out his annual present: a shiny silver dollar for each cop on the force. “Living in this area, he made friends with all the sheriffs and local leaders,” Fontes, stocky and dark-haired, tells me one afternoon in his wood-paneled office. Fontes has just returned from raiding a local pot farm and is twirling a two-foot-long marijuana stalk in his hand like a billy club. Lawlessness around here still persists, with poverty, crystal meth, and alcoholism rampant. But even for this seasoned veteran of the force, Popcorn stood out. “He was just a skinny little farmer-looking guy who would come around and talk and cut up,” he explains.
As Fontes learned, Popcorn had a long history of cozying up to the police and avoiding prosecution for making untaxed whiskey. One of Popcorn’s closest and oldest friends was the county’s most legendary sheriff, Tooney Moore, who shared his conviction that moonshine was an important part of the local heritage. “My deputies wouldn’t bother him,” Moore, a clean-cut retiree in a pink polo shirt, tells me. “I don’t care if he come in drunk or anything.” But Moore kept their friendship on the DL so as not to anger the more conservative locals. “People in the community didn’t know how close we was, and I wouldn’t tell ’em,” Moore admits. Later he and Sutton even built stills together, and during my visit Moore shows me one of many he recently made.
But while the cops may not have pursued his bootlegging aggressively, Popcorn got himself in hot water nonetheless. From back rooms to barrooms, locals tell me sordid tales of Popcorn’s violent temper. Regina Sutton, his eldest daughter, recalls a time in her youth when her mom opened the cabin door to find a man with a butcher knife sticking out of his neck. “I remember the blood gushing everywhere,” she says. She suspected even then that her daddy might be responsible.
Then there was the alleged attack on Willie Ferguson, a local musician who reportedly made the mistake of crossing Popcorn. As the story goes, Ferguson’s body was found on the side of the road, left for dead after having his throat slit. Word soon spread that Popcorn and another man cut him after a fight and took his fiddle.
Fontes hadn’t anticipated adding to Popcorn’s criminal record until April 24, 2007, when he spotted smoke billowing up from the woods. Fontes arrived to find Popcorn Sutton fanning the flames of a still, which had exploded from a gas leak. “He was walking down the driveway coming toward me and told me, ‘Hey, hey, hey, don’t tell nobody what you seen here,’ ” Fontes recalls. But the young cop, who’d seen the ravaging effects of drugs and alcohol on the locals, didn’t comply. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to turn a blind eye like the others.’ ” He arrested Popcorn, who got two years’ probation for possession of untaxed liquor. And Fontes, despite angering some locals for busting Popcorn, eventually became sheriff, a post he maintains today.
Despite being on probation, Popcorn defiantly refused to give up his trade. On February 7, 2008, a biker arrived at Popcorn’s house saying he wanted to buy more than 50 gallons of moonshine. Popcorn told him he sold that much all the time and, after bragging about his whiskey and his guns, sent the man away with 80 gallons of his own.
Over the next few weeks, Sutton sold more than 100 additional gallons of moonshine each to two different men and showed another guy the barn where three working stills and 500 gallons of moonshine sat, ready to roll. But as Popcorn discovered, the buyers were federal agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and America’s most notorious moonshiner was under arrest. This time, the local cops would be of no help. The man behind the raid was one of the country’s most infamous ATF agents, James Cavanaugh (a fellow Tennessean, who became known for leading the Waco and Unabomber raids), and he vowed to take Popcorn down. “Moonshine is romanticized in folklore and in the movies,” Cavanaugh declared. “But the truth is, moonshine is a dangerous health issue and breeds other crime.”
While Popcorn was under house arrest, motocross star Jamey Grosser showed up unannounced at the cabin one day. Popcorn had just one question for the stranger. “Son,” he asked, “do you eat pussy?”
“Yes, I do,” Grosser replied.“Then come on in.”
Grosser was just like any other fanboy who’d come to meet the living legend and buy some hooch. But Popcorn had fallen on hard times and ended up drinking and talking with Grosser for days. Now 62 and fighting kidney failure, Popcorn faced 15 years—likely his last ones—behind bars. His money was running out, and many of his friends, he lamented, had stopped coming around. “I don’t want moonshine to die with me,” he told Grosser as they stood near the casket that Popcorn kept in his house for his final day.
Inspired by the story, Grosser suggested they partner on a distillery and sell Popcorn’s moonshine legally. The two made a deal to open Popcorn Sutton Distilling and sell his whiskey on the open market, taxes and all. To Grosser it seemed less like a sellout than the last swift move of a sharp entrepreneur. “He was methodical about his brand and making a living,” Grosser recalls. “He was a whole lot smarter than people gave him credit for.” Grosser returned on March 16, 2009 to finalize the deal with Popcorn, who was scheduled to go to prison four days later. But Popcorn, who seemed unusually sullen to Grosser, had other plans. An hour after Grosser left the cabin with his paperwork, Popcorn built his final contraption. He ran a PVC pipe from the exhaust of his Ford Fairlane into his window and sealed it up with duct tape. Then he cut on the engine and leaned back in his seat. Later that day his wife came home from work to find him dead.
Though Popcorn left no suicide note, his dramatic exit has transformed him into a martyr for his cause and solidified his legacy as the little guy who’d rather die than let the Feds beat him. And the skirmishes continue: After his daughter Regina fulfilled his lifelong wish by burying him next to his parents at the Bend of the River, Pam Sutton exhumed his remains and buried him back in her own front yard at an elaborate ceremony attended by many, including Hank Williams Jr. Over a jar of moonshine at Popcorn’s cabin, Pam tells me with tearful eyes that his grave site had been getting desecrated, and she wanted him close to home. However, in what has become a Sutton civil war, Regina and her supporters, including Popcorn’s former girlfriend Ernestine Upchurch, are fighting to get his remains back to his empty grave at the Bend of the River and reclaim his brand name. Regina has plans to release her own moonshine based on her dad’s secret recipe with a local microdistillery near her home in Anchorage, where she now works as a trauma surgeon (a job that was inspired by the day she saw the guy at her daddy’s house with a knife in his neck).
In a final twist, she can now make her papa’s booze in Tennessee legally if she wants—the state passed a law shortly after his death authorizing moonshine production. The new law wasn’t enacted to honor Popcorn’s legend, though. It was done so the state could finally cash in (in addition to tax payments, starting a moonshine operation requires a half-million-dollar tax bond). As one legislator put it, “The law is not making legal someone who wants to open a distillery in their barn. Someone of means is going to have to step up.”
Someone of means like Hank Williams Jr., an equity partner with Grosser and Pam Sutton in the Popcorn Sutton Tennessee White Whiskey distillery, which recently celebrated an opening with stars including Kid Rock, Zac Brown, and Travis Tritt. “Popcorn was one of a kind, a man who told it like it was!” says Williams. “I can relate to that, as I am the same way. When I heard how Popcorn was treated and that he wanted me to be involved in carrying on his legacy, I was immediately in.”
Popcorn may no longer be around to weigh in, but his final words appear by his new resting place near his cabin in the woods. It’s a phrase he cut into his headstone when he was still alive. I wander up a grassy hill and read it there where he’s now buried, the same spot where his still had gone up in flames. The four-word epitaph sums up how he felt about his life, his death, and his legacy:
Popcorn said fuck you.
Show me more booze.
Head over to the girl galleries.