Friday, April 17, 2009

The Last Moonshiner

I go to some hollow,
And sit at my still
And if whiskey dont kill me,
Then I dont know what will

These verses are from an old ballad, apparently taken from the singing of a folk artist named Gilbert R. Combs. I had those verses running through my head last week. Dave borrowed a video documentary from Raven, our recording engineer. It was titled, "The Last One." He enticed me to watch it with him--told me it was about a moonshiner. I was skeptical, but thought I'd watch it for a few minutes anyway.

It was fascinating. This fellow, Popcorn Sutton, manufactured some moonshine for the video. He and a pal set up their still out in the woods somewhere in North Carolina. It was interesting--you could hear what a quiet place it was, with just some birds chirping. Sutton was skinny as a rail, with a cigarette seemingly permanently hanging out of his mouth, and the look of a man who has spent a good part of his life outside.

He had the assembly of the still and the distillery of the liquor down to a science, obviously having done this many times. The peaceful feeling of the place where he worked struck me throughout the show. After they built the still and while it did its work, a collection of folks who were obviously his friends, played some old time music for the video.

Overall Sutton made an impression on me. He was an expert in his moonshining and I thought he was fascinating, so I did some research to find out more about him. Google unearthed all of his history. He was 61 years old--I thought he looked 80. He had been arrested numerous times and served time in jail for both liquor and weapons violations.

Here is a recent picture of him with his lawyer and his ever-present cigarette, that was published in the Wall Street Journal blog.

The part of my research that really shocked me was that he had died just two weeks before we watched the documentary. He had been sentenced to 18 months in prison after a raid on his house uncovered over 1,000 gallons of moonshine and a bunch of weapons. He said he was sick and didn't want to die in prison. A lot of people signed a petition requesting that he not be incarcerated. When that didn't do any good, he evidently committed suicide. The final autopsy results have not been released.

I was so shocked that I woke up the next morning still thinking about Popcorn. He was very alive in the video. Too bad he was so determined to do his own thing the way he wanted to. He made videos, wrote a book, and pretty much flaunted his disdain for the law. I hope the Smithsonian has a copy of "The Last One."

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