Monday, June 22, 2009


Dear Readers, this is Neal Hutcheson, the guy who filmed "Prince of Dark Corners." He has several others, too, and one of them is "The Last One," that follows Popcorn Sutton through the building, operating and dismantling of a mountain still. (As you can see, it is featured on the counter at the Coffee Shop!) Since Neal was over at Malaprops with a program on "The Last One," he came over and watched movies with me. We caught up on gossip and discussed a dozen outrageous projects that we will never do. Neal is a big fan of The Coffee Shop and the staff. Over the weekend, he told me that he is a little distressed by all of the "Popcorn Mania" that seems to be everywhere. He also told me that he had eleven or twelve hours of unedited film of Popcorn, and he is currently attempting to edit it into a film about the man he knew behind the bushy beard and funky costume. Like Neal, I am also distressed by the amazing number of people who are now "authorities" on Popcorn "and his cultural relevance," the majority of which never met him.

For those of you who may not know, Neal has been making film for a long time for the Humanities Division of North Carolina State University and most of his work can be obtained from Sucker Punch Pictures. I originally met him when he was making a film of the poet, Jonathan Williams. He also has a website:


  1. How great that you and Neal got to visit!You know I bought Mountain Talk in Flat Rock at the Book Fest but I don't think I've told either of you guys how much I enjoyed it!
    I showed my The Last One to friends and had to order them one! Of course you know I love Prince of Dark Corners! Hey, Neal, I'll buy the new Popcorn DVD too!

  2. Although I should know better, I can't resist a comment. I had a couple of posts on my blog that mentioned Popcorn. On an average day, the blog gets about 100 hits, but as soon as it was announced that he had died the number went up to about 700 a day. Frankly, I found it more than a little annoying, mainly due to the sentiments expressed on other forums, such as "we killed him" (suggesting that society bore responsibility for his demise). That Popcorn was glorified as the last remaining vestige of the heroic Appalachian mountain man - I suppose it's mandatory to use the phrase "stubbornly independent" - was a bit more than I could take. I removed those blog posts in order to keep his devotees off my back. I'll admit my failure to comprehend what it was that so many saw - or wanted to see. That said, I think Neal's "The Last One" captures something worth capturing in an engaging manner. And despite my disgust with hero worship (and there was none of that in the film, let me make clear) the documentary gave me an appreciation of Popcorn's proficiency in an ancient craft. But I can appreciate the skill of an artisan without resorting to the overblown excesses we've witnessed before and after Sutton's death. If his demise marked the end of an era, then I say good riddance. I'd like to think that Appalachian culture is something more than a Snuffy Smith wanna-be. But I could be wrong.

  3. Gulahiyi,
    I agree with you. If you want to see some of the real excess, go over to Rob Neufeld's THE READ. I got a little light-headed reading that "intellectual crap" which is every bit as bad as "he was my buddy 'n I luuuuuve him." Sorry, I lost control there for a minute.

  4. Well, if there are any Popcornists that visit this blog, I guess they'd be afraid to admit it now! May I have another go at this? I'm guilty of being imprecise in my careless use of the phrase "Appalachian culture" but after my brush with Popcorn-mania, I have pondered on what it is. And I've decided that "Appalachian culture" is an oxymoron.

    No, not really. But if it just runs the gamut from Deliverance to Dollywood, as I suspect it does for many of the Popcornists, then I'd rest my case. In some ways, I find the syrupy schlock of Dollywood MORE objectional than the nasty stereotypes of Deliverance. At least we can thank Deliverance for those delightful T-shirts that read "Paddle Faster! I Hear Banjo Music!"

    I'd really love to get an answer, though. What is Appalachian culture? Anyone? I tend to describe it in terms of books, music and photography, but I know that comes up short, and I keep thinking back to something that happened last summer.

    I was out for walk one evening, admiring my neighbor's garden when I saw working on something over near the creek. I stolled to say hi and compare notes on how our beans and potatoes were doing. Turns out he was skinning a big old fat groundhog who had raided the garden one time too many. We had a good chat. He didn't invite me to stay for dinner, and I wouldn't have been very enthusiastic about the main course, anyhow.

    More often than not, from my perspective, Appalachian culture has a price tag on it and fits on a shelf. But when I walked away from neighbor's garden that evening, it dawned on me that the real thing is something else.

    Still, though, I don't feel like I can define it. So, somebody, tell me, "what is Appalachian culture?"


  5. Ultimately, Gulahiyi, myths and stereotypes are created by news and entertainment media, for good and for bad, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Popcorn myth is that we are watching it in the making—a sanitized version of the great Appalachian underbelly at which Americans love to point fingers.

    So what is Appalachian culture, you ask? Well, for starters, in 2009, it might be your clean-shaven neighbor in Carhartts, buying his jars in Wal-Mart, worrying about property taxes and paying for health insurance for his children, and getting home in time to water his corn in case there's no rain tonight. His story would not have a price tag, nor be placed on a shelf, and in fact, he might be so invisible you might not even know he was around.

  6. Ah, jeez, I have to give a wide berth to that question, but I should chime in here. One thing worth mentioning is that Popcorn himself hated the folk hero stuff about him. Part of it fits the bill, though. If you look at a character-study like Prince of Dark Corners, you see that in certain moments the attributions accrete around a person, for whatever reasons, and the real person is quickly and without notice left out of the equation. So that folk legend-ing (lets leave off the 'hero') process is in play there, and thats one of the interesting things, objectively, about the story. Even if its, you know, hard to swallow. Its also worth mentioning that (up until he died) his detractors were no less vocal or exaggerated in their depictions. The critical regard that Gary brought to the question is the exception. I think that much of what I saw in Popcorn the last couple of years was him trying to reassert control over the narrative, and if any one thing did him in, that was it. Part of the general trouble is the nature of film, that anything is potentially a metaphor, and a portrait becomes a sweeping generalization. (not to duck out, I have some responsibility in this case) This may be more true of Appalachian representations, though that is a point I hope will be taken up by someone qualified (Gary?). I actually have 30 + hours of footage with Popcorn Sutton that no one has ever seen, some 10-12 hrs of which I have yet to review. I will make a film out of it, striving to be honest, good and bad, whatever may come. But if it is taken to be a general portrait of Appalachia, well, some people may rightfully wish to see me torn by wild dogs. I will be thinking about it as I put it together, and hopefully it will be clear that its an Appalachian story and not a story about Appalachia. Perhaps I'll make some sort of wimpy disclaimer in the beginning, but more likely people should just draw their own conclusions. I'm grateful for Gulahiyi's comments above about The Last One, and I hope you will not spare me if I deserve less.

  7. Okay, I'll start, but I probably won't finish. One thing that distresses me about the people who are "explaining" what it "really means," is that I honestly feel that many of those folks are wrestling with their own demons and that causes them to over-state the case. They rage and shout about how we are being demeaned by "outsiders," but the awful truth is, many of them are motivated by a deep sense of shame. They are ashamed of what the term "Appalachia" embodies.
    It is not just mountain music, sunsets on Newfound, and home cooking and family. It is also painful ignorance, bigotry and "a propensity for violence." There is a tendency among our most outspoken "interpreters" to sentimentalize t he former and deny the existence of the latter. I don't trust interpreters of my culture who can't laugh at themselves. Like Gulahiyi said, those "Deliverance" inspired tee-shirts are funny. More to the point, those snickering, vicious fools and that idiot savant in that movie are based on a very real aspect of our culture. I know, because some of them are related to me!
    We need to be able to tell the difference between a parody of Appalachian folks that is genuinely imaginative and funny, and an insult to our culture and/or our way of life. Some of the people who have elected themselves to speak on our behalf, can't really tell the difference between a clever parody and an insult. Again, I know, because I sometimes can't tell either. so finally, I come to Popcorn who was a parody. He took the very aspect of our culture that is both a crude stereotype and an icon from our past and made it into a marketing ploy. He made money out of pretending to be (or actually being) what our worst detractors think we are. I think Popcorn had much in common with Byer (sp) Rabbit, Cayote, and the tradition of the Fool - characters who get away with holding up a mirror that reflects the beholder's shortcomings, and making them like it. Well, I'll hush, but I think there is more here than my poor blog can orchestrate.

  8. This is very interesting. And while I'm still trying to learn "what is Appalachian culture?" I probably need to clarify something if it's not already clear. I didn't know Popcorn, and, as I've said in the past can't presume to speak about him. When I said "Snuffy Smith wanna-be" I really meant that part of his appeal for many people was the fact that he appeared to be a walking, talking Snuffy Smith. If I'm reading Neal and Gary correctly, he invited people to project that stereotype onto him AND he also came to resent people projecting that stereotype. It sounds like a paradox, but life's full of contradictions, and you don't have to go very far to see this manifested in different ways. I'm thinking of Cherokee where there's a fine line between infatuation with Native American stereotypes and genuine respect for the culture. Even in myself, I'm not sure where one ends and the other begins.

  9. Gulahiyi, I think you are right. During the 15 years that I worked in Cherokee, I often saw Henry Lambert, the "street chief" perform a similar sthick to Popcorn's. Henry wore an outlandish costume than was a blatant parody of the dress of a Cherokee chief, but it met the public's expectations since it was a generic mix of all traditional Native American dress. Like Popcorn, Henry was often defiant in defending his act. (He liked to say that he put two kids through college with his summer job as a street chief). I discovered that many Cherokees were offended by Henry's occupation .. a job that they compared to "begging in public." Now, since, everybody is confessing, I guess I need to say that I didn't "know" Popcorn either, but I saw his performance in Maggie Valley. I just couldn't bring myself to "pay homage" to this icon. No, he didn't take me home, give me a jug and confide in me, but he didn't need to do that for me to perceive him as a man trapped in an image of his own creation. I look forward to seeing Neal's film. I think it will come closer to providing an insight into Popcorn than anything I have read here. But, hey, we haven't answered Gulahiyi's question, "What is Appalachian culture?" Several years ago, I read a book entitled "Appalachia is a State of Mind" which concluded that Appalachian culture didn't exist.

  10. Gulahiyi, you asked a serious question and deserve some serious responses. To the best of my knowledge, the first five or ten FOXFIRE books are probably still the most authentic overview of Southern Appalachian culture (not the extremes of NY and Pennsylvania Appalachians or Cajun heritage). Later in the series the students ran out of old-timers to interview, and so the topics became less diverse, but the first ones included very real and practical customs about traditional farming, building with wood and stone, funerals, weddings, religion, superstitions, tools, plant lore, animal husbandry, gardening, cooking, hunting, language, entertainment, and yes, likker-making, with lots of photographs and how-to diagrams. FOXFIRE mostly includes matters of common everyday living, neither the extremes of cultural underbelly nor upper crust living.

  11. Thanks, Betty, for addressing that. It’s funny you mention Foxfire, as I’ve always held those early volumes in high regard. Though I grew up in the Piedmont, my family latched onto Foxfire and I still own those well-worn editions. It wasn’t just nostalgia, as we used some of the practical information they contained. While I lived in a cotton-mill town, we had lots of country relatives. Canning vegetables, pressing cider, curing hams, milking cows, making butter, slaughtering chickens and making kraut…these were all a part of my growing up, so I could relate to those topics in Foxfire in a very real way. Looking back, those early Foxfire books gave us a last chance to connect with folks from the 19th century, the generation that was very old when I was very young. I miss them and I miss the culture they represent. And even though I’ll always be an “outsider” in the mountains, I don’t think I’m all that foreign.

    After googling “Appalachian Culture” I found an intriguing webpage from Appalachian Regional Ministry:
    Apparently, the information on this site is intended to prepare outside groups for coming into the region to do mission work. They suggest that the groups watch three DVDs: the Appalachians series that was PBS several years ago, October Sky, and Mountain Talk. In addition, one item of suggested reading is the Appalachian Culture article located at the address above. I suppose one could quibble with some of the generalities (stereotypes?) in the article. Anytime a subject so huge is condensed into something so concise, lots of nuance will be lost. But I find their effort to describe Appalachian culture worthy of some reflection.

  12. A decade ago when I used to be a big fan of Foxfire, I often stopped at that store down in Dillard (now moved to another site) and prowled.
    It was a wonderful store. However, on one occasion, I noticed that their book store did not carry some of my favorite books: references that I used in teaching classes on Appalachian literature and history. I asked why the didn't stock them and I was told that the Foxfire board had decided to carry no books that contained "negative images of Appalachian culture." Wow! There went some of the best books on this region!
    I still value the Foxfire books, but "censorship by omission" attitude certainly qualified my opinion of their comprehensive value.

  13. One thing I discovered, in the role of interested outsider, while making Mountain Talk was the ridiculous diversity of "Appalachia." I put this in quotes, because I'm really talking mainly about Haywood, Jackson, and Graham Counties, NC, thats it. So, the question about Appalachian culture may be linked to the question, Why is such a vast & diverse region (culturally & geographically) most often labeled and represented as, as the academics say, monolithic? In other words, what unifies Appalachia as a culture? Shared historical circumstances, the regard of the outside world ... ?

  14. Harry Caudill, who has now fallen from favor with the academics, says that we were united by our Scotch-Irish origins (although he threw in a large portion of the "unwanted rejects of the streets of London, Edinborough, Dublin,"). Our ancestors arrived in this country poorly prepared to cope with the wilderness and the original settlers clug together in order to survive. He says that this attitude has prevailed. Another unpopular minister turned historian/sociologist is Jack Weller who once did a book, "Yesterday's People," that has been much criticized. I get upset at some of his conclusions, but he also frequently comments on the issues that unified Appalachian settlers and their descendants. It definitely applied to my family and the life they lived in this region. I'm sure others will be along to comment on what unifies us, so I'll retire to the wings.