Friday, March 13, 2009

Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.

This sprightly little leprechaun is the legendary Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton. He is either a man intent on preserving one of this region's most fascinating (illegal) and neglected customs, or he's shrewd, skilled master of self-promotion. Maybe we should talk about that.

For those of you who do not know who Popcorn Sutton is, or what he has done to attract media attention, Popcorn is a moonshiner and he can't seem to stop. He has been in prison repeatedly since the 1970's, and although he repeatedly promises to not do it again, he does. At the time of his last arrest, he was already on probation and he was caught with an awesome amount of stored, illegal whiskey. Right now, he is serving an 18-month sentence and an impressive number of fans have protested. There are numerous blogs out there sporting "Free Popcorn!" articles (Yeah, there is a pun there), and this bushy-bearded little fellow is becoming a folk hero.

I've surfed around a bit and I am here to tell you, all of the responses to Popcorn aren't favorable. There are folks out there who ponder these photos and shudder. The comments range from Snuffy Smith comparisons to the usual "I didn't know people like this still existed."
I think it might be interesting to see how people respond to this post and Popcorn's continuing story.


  1. Well, I think Popcorn is both of these: “a man intent on preserving one of this region’s most fascinating and neglected customs” and a “shrewd, skilled master of self-promotion.”

    I like the twinkly-eyed, witty, spirited, tart-tongued Popcorn because he is INTELLIGENT and ENTREPRENEURIAL—much like Lewis Redmond and Gary Carden and a lot of other mountain men!

    Popcorn is certainly not like the lazy, dumb, ignorant, naive, chinless, drooling, one-gallused, incestuous, inbred, violent stereotype portrayed in dozens of hillbilly movies and other entertainment media.

  2. Well I was going to say what Betty did! I totally agree with her comment. My husband adores it anytime he hears news of Popcorn-he is just crazy about him.

    (Gary-I see why my blog link isn't working for you- I don't use blogger so my link is see if that fixes it)

  3. Anyone who has seen Neil Hutchison's film The Last One (Run?) knows Popcorn is a serious maker
    of blockade whiskey and represents a dwindling
    fraternity of "moonshiners" in the area. How
    can anyone not like the guy? I like his trickster image and edge. He's no fool. He knows the game he's playing. For instance, I'd
    bet he put some thought into that hillbilly
    street chief costume he wears summers in Maggie
    Valley when the tourists are crawling these
    hills like a hatch of baby spiders. Personally,
    I'm somewhat put off by it; just like I never
    really fell for the Cherokee street chief road-
    side attraction. But Chief Henry, the most famous/notorious one, put a son through law school on what he made posing for tourists
    snapping their Kodaks. Actually, this subject
    gets pretty interesting and deep. Back to Popeye. I think he ought to go free and
    Maggie Valley's Chamber of Commerce ought to pay
    any court fees and fines he may have incurred.
    Or not. It's Popeye's life and every one of us
    has to live with his/her choices.


  4. I agree that he's both craftsman and showman. I have watched him continually improve his technique over many years and he takes a lot of pride in the product. There's the soul of a craftsman there. At the same time he knows how to sell it too, and can lay it on a little thick. He once told me, them people that come around just stare at me like they can't believe what they're looking at, I'm just a monkey in cage to them, that's all it is. So part of it is humoring the outsiders, part of it is playing them. But its an act that relies on and references something authentic, and for many of the 'culturally affiliated' ties into a pride (Not for everyone, obviously!) that has no equal in mainstream 'culture.' I hesitate here, but its a little like Hee-Haw. Those were Real musicians sitting on those bales of hay under studio lights. Most of all, as far as what's authentic, Popcorn is, as Jonathan Williams might have said, 'a great talker.' Not meaning a braggart, but someone brilliantly fluent in the vernacular.

  5. JQ's comparison of Popcorn to a Cherokee street chief is interesting. I gather that a lot of Chief
    Lambert's defenders/apologists thought it was okay
    to indulge in a blatant deception. "Hey, the man is
    putting you on," you say."He's just giving you what you want to see." But I have also seen old Cherokees standing in the crowd that surrounded Chief Henry, and they shake their heads and look away. Chief Henry and Popcorn as "trickster"? Maybe so, but I think it is a lot more complicated than a gifted showman "putting you on."

  6. Everybody wears a uniform, both physical and mental, to portray an image—Popcorn, Henry Lambert, Obama, Wal-Mart manager (the one in a tie), banker, carpenter, logger, Las Vegas showgirl, government bureaucrat, tattoo artist, soldier, warrior, librarian, waiter, teacher, lawyer, cook, politician, Mickey Mouse, casino employee, fancy dancer.

    The point at which people sell their souls, however, is when they willingly portray themselves or their culture (or allow others to portray them) as ignorant and less human than other people (stereotypical hillbillies), hormonally enhanced but still dumb as dirt (Daisy Mae, Ellie Mae), or inbred, immoral, and extraordinarily violent (Deliverance, Wrong Turn).

    Popcorn and Henry wear their uniforms (whether real or culturally misrepresented) with dignity and intelligence and grace. I have heard no one accuse them of being ignorant or violent or hormonally enhanced, and I like having them amongst us. I’d rather have them doing what they do than working as two more government bureaucrats.

    By the way, during the recent Bill O’Reilly outrage, I got a quite humorous e-mail from someone suggesting that we encourage the making of even more movies like “Deliverance” and “Wrong Turn” (inbred West Virginia hillbillies who kill and cannibalize tourists) to scare developers and tourists away from our mountains.

  7. Popcorn is a professional hillbilly and he's great at it. Anybody who thinks he's dumb is dumb for sure. He has taken what he was given and what he has learned and made his own place in the world. Does anybody remember Willard Watson? He was another one. Instead of likker, he made "dancing fools," carved wood figures that "danced" on a wood paddle and the most clever (and probably the best sellers) were marvelously obscene. Willard's wife Ory was pretty much queen of the quilt artists, in Watauga County and thereabouts. These were VERY smart people. They knew how to make who they were work for them. Some of us do pretty much the same thing, and if that's "selling out," well, just put me in a cell next to Popcorn, and I vow to learn something from him that I will admire and try to pass along.

  8. Well, everyone seems to have covered the cultural, sociological, and entrepreneurial aspects of this subject without admitting to actual clinical trials. Therefore, I will add a personal testimonial about the man’s product, which I must confess I have sampled and found it possessed a superior bouquet and bead unlike inferior distillations with their sulfurous after tastes; however, due to the purity, that old Brylcreem jingle seems apropos as a warning to the uninitiated:

    Bryl-creem, a little dab'll do ya,
    Use more, only if you dare!

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