Madison County storyteller Sheila Kay Adams has said that Appalachian culture died with her grandparents, some time after the New Deal. Certainly, if there was anything left of the old ways, it ended with the gentrification of the '90s, when well-heeled retirees moved by the thousands to Western North Carolina, turning hollers like Waynesville and Brevard into resort towns, where the quaint, rustic way of life became just a selling point for million-dollar log cabins behind electronic gates.
So it was tempting to see Maggie Valley bootlegger Popcorn Sutton as a tourist attraction, a kind of moonshiner Buffalo Bill who parlayed a colorful past into a commercial identity based on nostalgia for a lost era. He looked the part with his crumpled hat, faded overalls and wiry beard. Only the grimy tennis shoes betrayed that he wasn't a period actor in costume.
By the end of his life, Sutton was the author of a book, the star of a documentary and the selling point for a variety of truckstop geegaws that featured his unmistakable likeness. He had a suite in a Maggie Valley bed and breakfast named after him. He was a favorite interview subject for academics, journalists and writers interested in Southern folklore.
If the Yankee invaders and the new Appalachian intelligentsia wanted to make Sutton a living time capsule, he did nothing to stop them. He spouted folksy witticisms and did funny dances to banjo music. He spewed profanity that would shock the saltiest sailor, but went to church every Sunday. He was obscenely funny, prognosticating at length on the bedroom virtues of obese women and the vices of modernity. He described his craft in near-mystical terms. "Jesus turned the water into wine," he said. "I turned it into liquor."
Three years ago, I followed Sutton up a winding road to an isolated cabin that he'd shared with his ex-wife (he was married at least a half-dozen times). At the end of the day, he produced a gallon of liquor from the trunk of his "three-jug car," a pea-green Ford Fairlane that he'd bartered for moonshine. Sutton claimed his liquor could knock buzzards out of the sky, make babies and end marriages. It was dangerous stuff. And despite his appeal as a remnant of a safer, simpler time, there was something dangerous about Sutton, too.
From his youth to his death, Sutton was a criminal in the eyes of the law, with a lengthy rap sheet and plenty of stories that belied the Snuffy Smith image. His given name, Marvin, had been replaced long ago, when he'd attacked a vending machine in a drunken rage. In recent years, he was very sick from a lifetime of hard living. A few weeks after our meeting, he was arrested again. A judge sentenced him to 18 months.
On March 16, he took his own life in his three-jug car, rather than serve out his sentence. Well-wishers, detractors and educated observers have eulogized him as a "heathen" who got what was coming to him, a "legend," "the last of the great moonshiners" and a lot more.
Whatever he was, we won't see it again—just like old Appalachia.