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Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshineby Max Watman
On Top of Old Smoky
THE FIRST TIME I SAW RENÉ WITH A JAR OF MOONSHINE, WE were having a beer in an empty bar and gazing at the sun-dappled trees of Tompkins Square Park. It was a quiet afternoon at Doc Holliday’s, a honky-tonk in downtown New York City with David Allen Coe on the jukebox, cowboy boots nailed to the ceiling, and cheap PBR. These bars, of which there were maybe half a dozen throughout the city, were headed toward a weird pinnacle of noxious renown: It was 1999, and there were already stories circulating about beautiful celebrities dancing on the bar while the bartenders (gorgeous, wild) poured flaming booze and screamed for their tips through megaphones.
René is the kid brother of a dear old friend, and in my imagination he is permanently fourteen. His beard, in fact his whole outdoorsy, laid-back, good-looking adult person, surprises me every time. He has wrenched motorcycles and hiked the Appalachian Trail, and he had spent his first paycheck from the Smoky Mountain forestry service to come visit.
He reached into his knapsack but stopped with his hand in the bag.
“Can I?” he asked, his eyes alight.
His brother shrugged.
Out came a Mason jar of clear liquid. This was years before I saw white lightning drip from a still in my own kitchen—in 1999, a jar of bootleg was a surprise. We took searing sips and shared it with the bartender.
Years later I took a break from the archives of Appalachian State University to call René and arrange our Labor Day visit in Sylva, North Carolina. He had been trying to line up a series of moonshiners for me to meet, and he had been excited at the prospect of cruising the country roads, meeting the locals, and drinking the legendary “charred liquor” of the hills. He seemed disappointed with what he’d managed. He hadn’t found any charred, and all the moonshiners had stopped returning phone calls, as moonshiners are wont to do. We would drive up the mountain to his friend Larry’s house—he might have some liquor—and have a barbecue. It was a fine way to spend Labor Day, I assured him. I could tell he felt that he’d failed.
I followed René up the mountain past small pastures and little homesteads nestled in leafy trees. At about 3,600 feet, we took a left onto a gravel driveway canopied by old-growth forest. A stream crossed the driveway at a ford, and we splashed through it.
Larry’s unassuming rancher is surrounded by bedded plantings. He’s built fences of driftwood and strung bottles along them. Arrayed about the property are benches he’s cut from entire trees. One of them overlooks his two little ponds—one for swimming, one for fish (his teenage son Wesley announced there were twenty-six of them). Up the hill, rows of Christmas trees awaited harvest. He took us into the woods, to a spot on a creek where magnolias grew like mangroves and a small, beautiful waterfall rushed. We talked about recipes for the perfect margarita.
Larry has tricked out a little wooden barn with a gigantic Peavey PA system, a bar, and a lava lamp. He opened the freezer door and said, “Sheeat! Look in here, there’s a jar of water that doesn’t freeze!”
A neighbor showed up with some shucked oysters from her home in South Carolina.
We listened to Steve Earle, Ralph Stanley, and AC/DC and poured moonshine over the oysters and shot them with Tabasco.
Larry mentioned a friend with stovetop still, and praised the famous Smoky Mountain charred.
I sipped Larry’s good corn whiskey—and that’s what it was, there was no doubt about it—and smiled at them and told them this was perfect. A late summer day spent high in the Smokies drinking good white lightning is pretty satisfying.
It was on this trip that I went in search of famed moonshiner Popcorn Sutton.
Popcorn Sutton has made a career out of moonshine, but not, or not wholly, in the usual way. Rather than rely upon actually selling jugs of the stuff, he authored the perpetually out-of-print and consistently in demand book Me and My Likker and set out on a mission of bizarre celebrity. He spent a lot of time driving around in a Model A Ford and being interviewed for local news footage about the “old ways.”
On Willie Nelson’s Web site, you can see Willie with his arm around Popcorn. Willie is dressed nonchalantly in black—hoodie, trousers, sneakers, t-shirt, cowboy hat. Popcorn, in contrast, is attired in his usual costume: overalls, a flannel shirt, and a greasy leather fedora. He’s hunched, his wild beard radiating down to his chest from drawn cheeks. He can’t be an inch over 5 feet 6, and I’d be amazed to learn that he weighs more than two cases of beer. He is somewhere between 45 and 105 years old—apparently it’s a bad idea to ask him. He looks as if he clips Snuffy Smith cartoons to his bathroom mirror.
Lana Nelson (Willie’s daughter) captioned the photo: “Somewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains near Cherokee, N.C., world renowned moonshiner and literary giant, Popcorn Sutton, visits Dr. Booger Nelson [Willie’s nickname is Booger Red] at a top-secret, undisclosed location. Popcorn brews corn liquor for thousands of thirsty customers in the dry county, and received a standing ovation when Dad introduced him at the sold-out Harrah’s concert.”
Popcorn never figured out how to monetize his celebrity. He gets hauled up on stage and smiles out into an exultant crowd, but he doesn’t get any more bills to stuff in his mattress. He has sold at least one Model A, and he doesn’t have the few thousand dollars it would take to get another print run of his book, although the thing is practically a home run, guaranteed to sell out while still warm from the printing press.
I had figured that his moonshine was all postmodernism, more about performance and presentation than liquor. Certainly, he doesn’t actually make liquor for thousands of thirsty customers. He speaks at folk-life festivals. I thought of him as the Andy Warhol of hooch. Just another example of how something that had once been purely American and real had transformed, for purposes of display, into something else.
The truth turned out to be much weirder.
Authenticity is evasive and hard to understand in America. Why were there half a dozen honky-tonk beer joints in New York City at the turn of the century? I don’t know what to make of the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, or the French Quarter in New Orleans. For that matter, I don’t know what to make of my own town, in which the historical review board insists that the houses continue to be built as if it were the middle of the nineteenth century, to maintain an authentic cohesion, without stopping to consider that nothing is more artificial than building nineteenth-century houses in the twenty-first century.
It’s a slippery thing. There is no denying that the French Quarter really is the French Quarter or that Fisherman’s Wharf is built on the quays. These places have found themselves, due to the pressures of commerce or culture, in a state of aggravated self-consciousness, compelled to emulate and replicate their salient features until artifice overtakes authenticity.
This shift happens to people, too. My suspicions about Popcorn’s artifice were only further underscored by one of the two places he lives, a vacation hub called Maggie Valley, his perfect correlative.
West of Lake Junaluska in North Carolina, I drove Route 19 between Hard Ridge and Utah Mountain. The asphalt rolled flat for a short stretch between the many hills and became Soco Road. I drove through miles of restaurants, bars, hotels, and gift shops. Maggie Valley, according to the 2000 census, is a town of 607 people. On the five-mile stretch of Soco Road, I counted about thirty restaurants.
Today every slope is a housing development—for vacationers, I assume—named, as is the mode for developments, for the very things the bulldozers took from the landscape: Walnut Hills, the Meadows, Wild Acres. The one I explored was a cluster of gray, particleboard-paneled houses stacked like playing cards.
Whatever Maggie Valley once was, it no longer is.
The town has commodified itself, just as Popcorn has. I got the feeling that everything I touched, everything I saw, was being done for the benefit of tourists. That feeling is enhanced by the breathtaking tally of the roadside gift shops. Finally, at the edge of town, a gigantic sign in yellow and black announced that I’d found the most photographed vista of the Smokies.
Certainly, this place was perfect for books about backwoods distilling, for stoneware jugs, for metamoonshine.
But there was one last contradiction: Popcorn had been busted.
The headline had read, “Fire Call Leads to Moonshine Bust: Firefighters Responding to a Cocke County Fire on Tuesday Discovered Much More than They Expected.”
On property belonging to Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, they found everything needed to make moonshine, as well as dozens of jugs of the finished product. Three large stills were in operation, and a building on the property was on fire.
Sutton now faces two charges stemming from Tuesday’s bust. Before his arrest, Sutton had gained a certain notoriety for his popular books and videos teaching others how to make moonshine.
According to one of Popcorn Sutton’s videos, he’s gotten in trouble for moonshining before—in 1974, and again in 1998.
He’s expected to appear before a judge on these most recent charges on May 9.
Popcorn’s shack in Maggie Valley is at the top of a hill, and at the bottom of that hill is the Misty Mountain Ranch, a bed-and-breakfast with a few cabins arrayed around a gravel parking lot. Karen and Peter, originally from Chicago, own the place. They, being garrulous and good-natured folks, befriended Popcorn, and he eventually became a mascot for the B&B. They bought one of his Model A’s and dropped it in the yard, where it sits with a copper still bolted onto the back and some stickers, one of which reads DON’T LET THE TRUTH GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD STORY.
It was here that I lurked and waited for Popcorn, and things got strange.
“Oh, I wish you’d called ahead,” said Karen, “but it’s okay, he’s coming here today, anyway. Do you have his cell phone number?”
When the local news did a segment on him, the whole thing was framed by the idea that Maggie Valley is a beautiful place where people can see life “the way it used to be.” The local news writers held that the more folks wanted to see the old ways, the more they crowded them out. The old culture died. What’s left of the old ways, they claimed, throbs in Popcorn’s breast. This sort of thing suits Popcorn fine; it’s exactly the line he sells about himself.
I hadn’t begun by looking for inconsistencies, but once I started paying attention—once, in other words, someone offered up a self-proclaimed mountain man’s cell phone number—they began to leap out at me like mice from a kitchen drawer.
I went back and watched the clip of that local news report again. The camera is on Popcorn in his cabin, ostensibly a mountain shack, heated by just a woodstove. He says, “I can cook right here on top of it just as good as you can on an electric stove, downtown.” In the left margin of the screen there is an electric stove.
That’s not fair—perhaps it’s gas.
Karen told me that Popcorn was not well, he’d fallen off of his front porch and hurt his back. He was seeing a chiropractor, and that was making it worse. “He’s taking codeine,” she said, “but maybe he’ll want to meet you.”
So I waited around.
I gave Karen $35 for Popcorn’s DVD, mendaciously and manipulatively titled This Is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make, and put it on back in my cabin.
The documentary is fun: Popcorn drives around in his old Ford, looks for a good spot, and rambles on about himself.
Popcorn finds a stream with good water and shows the camera some “water weeds,” which he claims prove the water will make good liquor. He’s 10 yards ahead of the camera, and he climbs over a rock or two to come back toward the cameraman. He bitches about how hard of a job it is. It’s rough stuff, in rough country, and he’s old and tired.
The camera follows him as he walks, and we see that the car is on the side of the road, which is maybe 10 yards away—quite a hike.
I wandered back up to the house, fed the ducks, and drank a beer with my hosts until a gold Toyota pulled down the driveway. It was Popcorn. He was too tired to talk, in too much pain, and too foggy from the codeine.
That was the end of me and Popcorn, but it wasn’t the end of Popcorn’s story. After the fire at his home led to being busted, he proceeded to sell moonshine to a federal undercover agent, who ramped him up until they were dealing in volume. Popcorn sold him 300 gallons, and promised him another 500. The feds raided him, and found “three large stills with capacities up to 1,000 gallons, over 850 gallons of moonshine, and hundreds of gallons of mash, materials and ingredients used to manufacture moonshine, and firearms and ammunition.” He pled guilty, and received his sentence on January 26, 2009. He got eighteen months in the federal penitentiary.*
On March 16, a few days before he was to report to prison, Popcorn hooked a pipe up from the exhaust of his Ford Fairlane—his three-jug car, he called it, because he’d traded three jugs of liquor for it—and asphyxiated himself.
* How to Be a Criminal, Item 1: Do not, while on probation or having recently come to the attention of the law, engage in large-scale felonies with strangers.
© 2010 Max Watman, Inc.
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