Vacationing in Tennessee this summer, we had some hickory smoked pork at a great little bar-b-que place, Cowboy’s Bar-B-Q in Cosby. The pork was fantastic, but it was the conversation with Jeb, the owner and cook, that stayed with me. Jeb told us about “Popcorn” Sutton. Sutton was a moonshiner and a local legend. We also learned that he had recently killed himself rather than serve an 18 month sentence.
I was intrigued by this man, and by moonshining in general. To me, it represented a bold statement of freedom, so I was excited to learn that a documentary had been made about Sutton, The Last One. As soon as I could, I went online and bought it.
We watched the other night. The movie follows Sutton as he sets up a still in the mountains of Tennessee and makes his last batch of 180 proof moonshine. He was a colorful character, whose down-to-earth personality matches the scenery and makes you sad that he’s gone. He was a technical wizard who mastered the art and science of distillation and could tell the proof of the liquor by shaking it and watching the bubbles. The film is visually beautiful, down to the close ups of old hands cutting copper pipe, and banjo music played at the still site while Sutton worked almost completes the experience. I say “almost” because one can almost taste the liquor, but not quite.
The scenes of Sutton are complemented by interviews with local reporters and authors who describe the history and culture of moonshine. These mountain folk were considered criminals because they made and sold untaxed liquor. But as I listened to the accounts of stills being smashed and dynamited, I asked my kids, “Who are the criminals here?”
Sutton himself stated it well: “Thar ain’t a thing here that I didn’t pay fer. I paid taxes on the copper. I paid taxes on the sugar…on the jars. I didn’t steal nuthin. I don’t think I broke the law…” He had been arrested several times in his 62 years, and just kept at it. During the latest trial, “Judge Greer noted that he never heard Sutton express any remorse for violating federal and state laws relative to production of untaxed whiskey.” No, he didn’t see anything wrong with what he was doing, because there wasn’t anything wrong with it. Black markets arise naturally when governments oppress the people. But as Mike at Anything Peaceful wrote: “Capitalism can’t be stopped, only driven underground.”
He learned moonshining from his daddy, and figured he couldn’t count the gallons he’d made in his lifetime. The one he made on film was his last one. Just days before he was to report to prison, his wife found him dead in his car, an apparent suicide. Sutton is a hero, not because he made 180 proof liquor, but because he did not let the State dictate how he would live. I don’t admire him for his suicide, which may probably resulted from depression, but I admire him for his previous tenacity, courage, independence, freedom, and self-determination. And he was just a likable guy. See for yourself.