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a0328143.jpg Sky Sutton of Northampton has written a book about the life of her late father, "Daddy Moonshine: The story of Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton." She holds a sample of moonshine from one of her father's recipes.
[S24] The Newport Plain Talk, (http://www.newportplaintalk.com), 19 Mar 2009.
Widow: Moonshiner took his life to avoid prison
[S142] Newspaper Article, Daily Hampshie Gazette (NH), 26 Mar 2009.
Famed Tennessee moonshiner's daughter captures lost world of her lost father
By LARRY PARNASS
Photo: Famed Tenn. moonshiner's daughter captures lost world of her lost father
Sky Sutton of Northampton has written a book about the life of her late father, "Daddy Moonshine: The story of Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton." She holds a sample of moonshine from one of her father's recipes. He killed himself March 16 instead of reporting to a federal prison.
NORTHAMPTON - Sky Sutton of Northampton lost her father in stages. But southern culture lost Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton all of a sudden, when the legendary moonshiner climbed into a green Ford Fairlane he'd rigged with piping and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Sky Sutton, a 35-year-old personal care attendant and writer, did not attend her father's burial last week. Instead, she's collecting condolence notes from her father's fans and writing a final chapter to her self-published book, "Daddy Moonshine."
Popcorn Sutton killed himself March 16 at the age of 62 outside his house in Parrottsville, Tenn., rather than report to a medium-security prison in Georgia to serve the remainder of an 18-month sentence for illegally producing distilled spirits.
In his later years, with a handful of arrests for producing untaxed homemade whiskey, Sutton became celebrated as one of the last of a breed, starring in a documentary called "The Last One" and in a History Channel production called "Hillbilly: The Real Story."
He was known for his foul talk as well as his craft. "Jackass" producer Johnny Knoxville taped a four-hour interview with Sutton last fall.
Amid his growing fame, the moonshiner remained aloof to the daughter he fathered in 1974.
"To these people, he's a hero. He's like the Jesse James of moonshine," his daughter said this week over coffee at Haymarket Cafe in Northampton. "For his children, he's just emotionally unavailable."
Sutton's book, on one level, is an attempt to move on after a search that did not lead to a happy father-daughter reunion. They never engaged in the fond reminiscence that followed Popcorn Sutton in his travels on the festival circuit.
In his daughter's tale, Popcorn Sutton is a distant star in a southern constellation of moonshine culture and rural southern life.
Despite several attempts, Sky Sutton was never able to reach an accord with her father, whom she last saw when she was a toddler. Her parents split up and she and her mother moved back north; her family has Pioneer Valley connections going back generations.
Sutton says her last phone call with her father ended with her cursing and hanging up. It went something like this, she recalls:
"I said, 'Hi, Marvin.'
He said, 'That's not my name.'"
The daughter then mentioned her birth certificate, which lists a Marvin as her father.
"'Oh, I know you,' he said."
And with that remark, she remembers, the long-distance connection seemed even more remote.
"That's a very pretty thing to hear," she said, with sarcasm. "It just got immediately ugly."
He never called her.
Writing her life
Sutton began work on her book about a year ago, around the time Popcorn Sutton was arrested both for liquor and weapons violations.
It was illegal for him to possess a gun because of an earlier moonshining conviction. But making shine, a Southern subculture's beloved lubricant, was in his blood.
Sky Sutton takes the tone of a folklorist recording a bygone way of life - the world of the moonshiner. She writes in Chapter 2:
It isn't surprising that Popcorn has attracted so much attention. His slippery craft and his old-timey antics appeal to something in our collective past. His overalls can be seen as the blue denim flag of old pick-up trucks and cork-plugged clay jugs. His colorless hat is the nod of a gentleman, his beard the badge of a wild man. His high reedy voice carries the echoes of banjos and fiddles. His stealth and focus speak volumes for the cunning and moxie of who he is: a Smokey Mountain moonshine master.
What she does not narrate is the way her father's rebuffs made her feel. While a confession-style memoir might appeal to some readers, Sutton felt a kinship with people down south she had gotten to know since she first reached out to her father's family when she was 19.
"His name is Marvin and he's a moonshiner. That's pretty much all anybody knew about him," she said.
Sutton discovered she has a 42-year-old half-sister who she cannot find. She also has a 12-year-old half brother for whom she feels protective. Her mother is also behind the veil; she declines in an interview, and in her book, to give her mother's last name.
"A bunch of my friends don't have daddies either," she said. "It just happened that my daddy-daughter drama came attached to Appalachian moonshine. I felt let's play it for less (rather than) more.
"I'm not going to beat my audience over the head with my own emotional drama."
In the book, Sutton's sources include the documentaries about her father, stories told by southern relatives and her father's associates - including an apprentice moonshiner - regional histories and newspapers and excerpts from her father's self-published book, "Me and My Likker."
After his 2008, arrest, people in Tennessee and North Carolina signed petitions calling for leniency. But a U.S. District Court judge said that considering Sutton's five convictions, including a 1985 charge of assault with a deadly weapon, he would get prison time. Only a year before, he'd been caught with 650 gallons of moonshine on his own property and given probation.
That last arrest, based on an undercover operation, led to the discovery of three stills and more than a thousand gallons of moonshine, with liquor and equipment found in two states.
Sutton dropped off a computer file of her book with Paradise Copies in Northampton on March 16 and ordered a proof copy. Later that day, she learned her father, who had long hinted at suicide, had gone through with it. He had just received a letter telling him to report to prison.
Police had taken away his guns. "He wanted to die at home and he knew he was going to die," his daughter said. "He figured out how to turn his car into a death trap."
A friend emailed her news updates through the day: that Popcorn had died, that the death was not considered suspicious and, finally, that he succumbed to carbon-monoxide poisoning. She learned later that her father, who was fragile and in poor health, had been giving away possessions.
His fourth wife, Pam Sutton, found him in the car, which he'd bought at a price of three jugs of illegal whiskey.
"I ran my errands and had an honestly great day. Then I got my emails and I went sideways," Sutton said.
"It was a slow drip of information throughout the entire evening. It was my own little cyber funeral."
Sutton left posts on Web sites buzzing with news of her father's death. She told moonshine fans her own story was nearly ready.
Calls for a Dixie sainthood for the fallen outlaw seemed to be growing.
His biggest admirers? "People who are not big fans of the truth," Sutton said.
Still, the exposure was well-timed for "Daddy Moonshine." As of Tuesday she'd taken more than two dozen orders for her book, which sells for $25.
Calls then came in from reporters, including Duncan Mansfield of the Associated Press and staff writers for the Asheville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., newspapers. The Wall Street Journal chronicled Popcorn Sutton's passing Friday.
The AP story began: "Famed Appalachian moonshiner Marvin 'Popcorn' Sutton, whose incorrigible bootlegging ways were as out of step with modern times as his hillbilly beard and overalls, took his own life rather than go to prison for making white lightning, his widow says."
A radio reporter from Seattle called and expressed surprise that she doesn't speak with a Southern accent. "He was expecting Daisy frickin' Duke to get on the phone with him," she said.
In those interviews, she talked up her father's legend, and steered clear of her unhappiness with aspects of his mountain culture. While her father could be charming, and was to her mother more than three decades ago, Sutton was repelled by aspects of his world. "His politics were beyond revolting," she said.
She adds, "I get honestly frightened about what would have happened if I'd stayed."
On Wednesday, she was still working at her kitchen table on her book's ending.
First, though, she had to find the right 800 words to send to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, which contacted her seeking an excerpt to publish Sunday.
More orders for books had arrived, two with checks bearing Confederate flag logos.
In the flush of it all, Sutton was finding a happiness that had her father's name on it, and nonetheless managed to make her feel happy.
Larry Parnass, the Gazette's managing editor for news, can be reached at email@example.com.