A view of Popcorn Sutton from the eyes of a 12 year old
I've taken more than 500 passengers on the Moonshine & Wine tour over the last 12 months. A lot of questions come up like "have you ever tried real moonshine?", why yes I have, how bout you? A lot also ask me "why do they call it moonshine?", well it aint because they make it by the moonlight, that's a myth. I would say though that the most asked question is "did you know Popcorn Sutton?", I can honestly say, no I did not. At least not in the sense that one man knows another man. The last time I seen him I was 12 years old.
I did not know Popcorn but I have met him many times and I have seen him many times in my life. I grew up in the same County that Popcorn lived in during his last years. He came to our house on many occasions. Popcorn was a man who had a lot of acquaintances due to his dealings. My daddy was a similar man who happened to like Popcorn's famous moonshine. Both men were classic mountain men. My daddy had a fire red beard about 2 feet long from the time I was born until he cut it off when I was about 16. He stood over 6 feet tall and loved his overalls. When my daddy would dress up he always wore a nice pair of blue jeans, his boots, a black cowboy hat with a feather in it, a button up dress shirt, and his leather vest. The vest often hid what he called "the peacemaker".
(Photo: My dad, Shirl Ownby back in 2005 with my oldest son. By the time this was taken he cut off his beard and hair so he no longer looked like a mountain man.)
Popcorn once said "They aint a lot of folks I trust, but there's a few, but I tell ya this. I can fit what few of them there are in a Volks Wagon and it won't be crowded". My daddy and Popcorn were friends of sorts. They were the kinda men who didn't claim friends as we do now. They had folks they could trust and folks they wouldn't tell a secret to as small as who took the cookie from the cookie jar. My daddy and Popcorn had a lot of respect for one another and I imagine a lot of trust as well. Popcorn brought my daddy all the moonshine he could drink and my daddy supplied him in return.
I grew up in a very small rural community on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains known as Cosby. My 2 brothers and I lived with my daddy and my step mother who we called Merge. Her name was Mary Helen Williams and I have no idea where the name Merge came from. From the age of 5 up until 15 I lived with my daddy in a 2 story house built back in the late 1800's. It had an old house smell which I still remember to this day.
Now that the scene is set, lets discuss Popcorn. I seen a lot of the old moonshiner in my youth. He cussed so much he'd make a sailor blush. If he spoke 5 words at least 3 of them would be something you wouldn't wana repeat for grandma. He was a small man, or at least he seemed to be compared to my dad and others. I think it was cause he was always kinda hunched over. I noticed he had some kinda issue with his back but I had no idea what it was. In my family youngin's were to be seen and not heard when adults were around. This is why I can say I did not "know" Popcorn. I heard their words and I played in the yard as they would sit under the big oak tree talking, telling stories, and drinking some shine.
Although he seemed small in stature I still had a great deal of respect for him as a kid. Not because of his fame, at 12 I had no care of fame, it was because he was my elder. I did not ask him questions and on the few occasions he hollard out for a drink from the fridge my response was always "yes sir". We wen't really suppose to listen to what the adults talked about but as kids we were always curious. I reckon they knew we was eaves dropping but as punishment we were used as gofers for what ever they needed. Go fer this or go fer that ... for those who don't know what a gofer is. I learned things listening to all those old timers. One of the men was known simply as Duke ... a man who was the oldest among them. Duke lived just a 1/4 mile down the road and he walked to our house every Saturday. Not such a task for most but Duke was at that time in his 90's or better. Duke was a moonshiner too but he was the most famous one in the group. Duke use to supply the infamous Al Capone back when Cosby was the prohibition capitol of the US. They supplied more alcohol than any other community, town, or city in America.
Im gettin side tracked here, this story is about Popcorn after all. The thing I noticed most about Popcorn as a man was his gusto ... if thats the word. He was the kind of man who's voice was akin to a mouse but by the time it reached the ears it was like a bear. I guess because when we was a kid folks picked on him for his size and such. He learned how to not take no crap off no one and he brought that with him into adult hood. His words might not have sounded like those of Morgan Freeman but if he told you he was gonna break a broom stick off in your butt it was not a joke or a threat ... he meant it. The thing about old time mountain folks is they aint got time for games, if they say something its as true as the gospel. Popcorn had a way of gettin things done even though he appeared to be the runt of the litter as they say. No one gave him a hard time or joked on him cause he wouldn't say anything he'd just crack you over the head. I never seen him violent in my life but when I say the man had gusto, thats the vibe I got from him. Thats the kind of respect he got among the old men who sat under that oak tree telling stories and drinking shine.
Popcorn was not a famous man when I was a kid so I paid no special attention to him. How was I to know he would become such a famous person. The last time I seen him I was 12 years old and it was 1993 ... many years before he ever made his first video or wrote his first book. Even though I never seen him again after that I still knew of him because even though he wasn't famous to the world he was famous in our community as being the best moonshine ever made. My daddy had this huge 5 gallon wine bottle and it was filled to the top with Popcorn Sutton moonshine. When I was 15 my daddy caught me and my older brother snatching his shine from that big bottle. We were replacing the lost liquid with water which made him more angry than us taking the moonshine in the first place. Replacing it with water destroyed the proof and water down the product. We had no idea at the time.
Popcorn's legend grew and when I was older my friends and I would ride out in the dark to a place few dared to go in the pitch black to meet a man by a tree to buy Popcorn moonshine. I was a young man at that time and it was $10 for a quart of stuff so stout you wouldn't remember your own name in 5 sips or less. We spent a lot of time camping in the woods for our parties. As mountain folks we didn't got to a house or a hotel, we all felt at home among the trees with a big fire and some kind of drink.
Growing up I didn't know Popcorn in the way that a man knows another man. I knew what he was famous for in our area (and later on to the rest of the country). I knew he cussed like you wouldn't believe. I knew he was a true born mountain man. I knew he was someone who meant what he said and said what he meant. I knew he was the kind of man who wouldn't sugar coat a darn thing. I knew he loved his old Model A more than most men love their dog. I knew if I wanted the best shine he was the guy to talk to. I knew a lot about Popcorn Sutton, but I didn't know him.