Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton was a pistol. He also carried one.
A legend of Appalachian moonshine-making, Sutton was a mountain man in looks and attitude who practiced his "craft" from early childhood until his suicide March 16.
He was not one to fly beneath anyone's radar, and for the past two years, commercial photographer Don Dudenbostel and writer/producer Tom Jester, an independent broadcast writer/producer/director, partnered to record his daily life, including the intricate workings of his moonshine operation.
The result is a stunning black-and-white photographic portrait of Popcorn Sutton, complete with that Popcorn sound.
Dudenbostel's camera caught the essence of the man, his trademark salt-and-pepper rat's nest of a beard, the rumpled fedora with a raccoon bone "toothpick" stuck in the top, the overalls and the ever-present cigarette. And Jester captured the unique flavor and mountain soul of Sutton's salty language.
The two men were even allowed inside the master's mixing chamber on Upper Road in Parrottsville, where Popcorn plied his trade of corn, sugar, water, rye and barley malt in his pot still, where the whiskey was produced in industrial size stainless steel containers.
"Popcorn always said there were four kinds of whiskey," says Jester. "There was the crying kind, the laughing kind, the divorcing kind and the fighting kind. He said some of his whiskey had four fights to a pint."
Popcorn made all four. For example, his "high shots," says Dudenbostel, were 190 to 195 proof, the highest octane of the first part of the batch. He also used the last part of the barrel - called the "backings" - for somewhat milder jugs, but still strong enough to stagger a mule.
Jester says underneath all that crusty and rusty outward appearance and foul language, Sutton possessed a genius for marketing.
"Think about it. He was known everywhere. He said his business plan was 'repeat business.' He took the hillbilly stereotype, which he was, and made it work, just like Col. Sanders did for fried chicken.
"He made the best, using the best ingredients. His malting corn was from Germany. He used only new jugs for his whiskey," says Jester.
Another profitable aspect of the Sutton business plan was his aged liquor, some of which was stored for four years in charcoal oak barrels.
But then, not all made it to the charred barrels.
"Some was aged just long enough to get to the jug," says Dudenbostel with a chuckle.
His price was $25 for a half-gallon of the fresh-from-the-pot whiskey. Aged was $50.
Before his death, Sutton had been the subject of numerous newspaper articles and various documentaries by New York filmmakers. He even penned his own book, "Me and My Likker."
His notoriety, in fact, once landed him onstage with country music legend Willie Nelson, who was already acquainted with Popcorn, as were many members of the audience.
Popcorn told Jester once that he wasn't a wealthy man, but he didn't depend on anyone but himself. He owned 17 automobiles, Dudenbostel says, including the so-called "three-jar-Ford." Popcorn traded three jugs of whiskey for the Ford Fairlane and then drove it to California and back. His three-jar Ford was the one in which he died, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning by his own hand.
Dudenbostel says the Fairlane was his pride. It was painted a deep green with yellow wheels. The bumper was hot pink.
All of his cars were muscled up, reinforced in the back and ready to roll out on a Thunder Road run.
Dudenbostel says Sutton once lived with a woman who was a tenured Duke University professor in Maggie Valley, N.C., but at the same time he was the true "hillbilly born and raised in the mountains who learned to make whiskey from his father and grandfather.
"He came from three generations of moonshiners and spent 40 years making whiskey."
"Popcorn had a soft side, too," says Jester. "He only weighed 85 pounds at the end. He was funny. He was soulful."
Popcorn was also a thorn in the thicket for lawmen. When he died at age 61, he was just days away from serving 18 months in federal prison.
The man who achieved a kind of Robin Hood status, outsmarting alcohol agents for more than three decades, had finally overstepped, got caught for illegally brewing spirits and possessing a firearm, something a felon can't do. All because of a little explosion in the still house.
Before the blast, Sutton had been convicted in 1975 of federal moonshining charges and of felony assault with a deadly weapon in North Carolina in 1985, according to court records.
Then in April 2007, Popcorn's still blew up, bringing out fire trucks and eventually agents from Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Dudenbostel and Jester happened to be photographing and recording the moonshiner when the still went up.
After the blast, agents found 850 gallons of Popcorn's best. He admitted at the time that he made the untaxed alcohol. Even later, an undercover ATF agent purchased 300 gallons of Popcorn's moonshine, which triggered a raid on his property.
Agents discovered a barn and an old school bus apparently used as a warehouse. The raids also turned up three stills with a 1,000-gallon capacity each, along with guns and hundreds of gallons of mash.
In April 2008, Sutton pleaded guilty in federal court to making illegal liquor, and was looking at a 15-year sentence.
"He told me he couldn't go back to jail," says Dudenbostel.
For Dudenbostel, Popcorn Sutton is part of the vanishing Appalachia. He will use about 70 of his black-and-white images of the famous moonshiner, as well as other photographs of snake-handling preachers and even an East Tennessee mule skinner for an exhibit at the East Tennessee Historical Society in January 2010. After that the photos go on a road tour of national museums.
The photographer is legend himself. After graduating from West High School in 1967, he went to the University of Tennessee to study organic chemistry and microbiology, while serving as chief photographer for The Beacon and the UT Yearbook.
In October 1969 he had his camera ready during a campus protest. He took a photo of student Ray Alexander kneeling, holding up a V for peace. The shot took up a full page in a 1970 Esquire Magazine story.
Instead of finishing UT, Dudenbostel left his senior year to study under Master Photographer Joe Jernigan of Knoxville. In 1975, he studied with Ansel Adams and Arnold Newman of Life Magazine fame. In 1985, the Professional Photographers of America named Dudenbostel Master Photographer.
"It will break your heart, he's so good," says Jester.
Retired senior writer Fred Brown is a freelance contributor to the News Sentinel.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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