“Moonshiners” is a docudrama TV series, that follows the lives of people who illegally produce moonshine in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Produced by Magilla Entertainment, the show dramatizes the efforts of fearless men and women as they tackle production, and evade the law, keeping the old tradition of craft whiskey alive. It premiered in December 2011 and has run for 11 seasons. The series quickly garnered a loyal fanbase, and has even spawned several spin-offs such as “Tickle,” “Moonshiners: Master Distiller,” and “Moonshiners: Smoke Ring.”
How was “Moonshiners” created?
The idea for the show spawned from a documentary series filmed in the early 2000s. Neal, the documentary maker, asked local resident Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton to appear in the short film about the southern Appalachian dialect entitled “Mountain Talk.”
In 2002, he collaborated with Marvin and filmed the documentary movie entitled “This is the Last Dam Run of Likker I’ll Ever Make,” which chronicled Marvin’s illegal production of moonshine and the business. Later, in 2007, Marvin was featured in the documentary “Hillbilly, the Real Story.”
In 2008 a slightly edited version of Neal’s movie aired on PBS and the Documentary Channel entitled “The Last One,” garnering a Southeast Emmy Award the following year. The film became very popular, attracting the attention of TV producers in Boston and New York City.
Hailing from Maggie Valley, North Carolina Appalachians, Marvin took on the family business of making moonshine and bootlegging. In 1999, he published his autobiography/ guide to moonshine production, entitled “My Likker and Me”, and filmed a short video of his business. Marvin was nicknamed “Popcorn” after trashing a faulty popcorn machine with a pool cue in a pub.
For several decades, Marvin hand-made all of his stills, welding parts together, lugged over a 100-pound sack of sugar on his back, and hacked through Tennessee and North Carolina. Given that production and distribution of moonshine is considered an illicit activity punishable by law, Marvin locked horns with law enforcement agencies on multiple occasions, which would later stop his business and, unfortunately, his life.
Who are the “Moonshiners”?
As it happens with this type of reality series, the cast often changes from season to season; over the years, numerous members joined or left the show for their own personal reasons. The last season’s cast numbers were Tim Smith, Steven Ray Tickle, Digger, Mark Ramsay, Richard, Josh, Mike Cockrell, Mark Rogers, Craig, Kenny Law, Jerry, Daniel, and Huck.
Which members of the show passed away?
Every reality series has its share of unfortunate deaths and accidents among its cast members, and “Moonshiners” is no different. During the 11-season run, several members passed away, often leaving the audience heartbroken.
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton
Even though technically he wasn’t a member of “Moonshiners,” his life and work inspired the series, which later kept his memory alive throughout its run. Marvin was a kind of cultural icon and an embodiment of moonshine yore when it comes to producing the liquor. As mentioned, Marvin often clashed with law enforcement during his life, due to his illegal business. In 1974, he was arrested for producing and selling untaxed liquor, but he usually avoided jail time with just probation for his illicit activities. However, liquor was Marvin’s bread and butter, and he showed no intention of halting his business, which he also greatly loved and enjoyed doing.
Time would prove that Marvin couldn’t escape the law, and the fact that he openly spoke about it didn’t help him much. In 2007, a fire ravaged his property, leading the police to discover over 600 gallons of untaxed liquor while dealing with the fire. During the same year, Marvin was arrested by ATF agents of Cocke County, Tennessee, for illegally distilling alcohol, and possession of a handgun by a felon. In 2009, he was sentenced to eighteen years in prison, but unfortunately, his battle with the authorities would have a tragic ending. On 16 March 2009, to avoid jail time, Marvin committed suicide in his car near his Parrotsville, Tennessee residence. It was said that he killed himself through carbon monoxide poisoning; Marvin was 62 years old. His wife Pam Sutton discovered his body, when returning home after finishing chores.
In addition, a couple of weeks before he learned of his sentence, Marvin had been diagnosed with cancer, which might have played a role in his decision to take his own life, although Marvin’s wife corroborated the theory that his action was caused partly by the strain of his impending prison sentence; Pam said: ‘He could not go to prison. His mind would just not accept it. So credit the federal government for my husband being dead. I really do.’
Although he wasn’t physically present in “Moonshiners,” Marvin was always there in spirit. A year after Marvin passed away, his widow Pam and the musician Hank Williams Jr. announced a partnership with J&M Concepts LLC, to distill and distribute the brand of whiskey entitled Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey.
Lance Waldroup was a TV personality who gained fame starring in “Moonshiners” for six seasons.
He joined the show with his father, Jeff, in the second season, and remained in the series until 2019. He became very popular during the show’s run, mainly due to his highly positive attitude and funky personality. Lance often turned to Jeff for help and advice while distilling local high-proof liquor, absinthe, and ‘scotch’.
After the show’s eighth season premiered in 2019, fans were taken aback when they found that the famous father-son duo was missing from the series, sparking questions and theories. While fans hoped that the pair might return to the show in 2021, that dream was crushed after the news of Lance’s untimely death began circulating. On 16 February 2021, Lance passed away in Robbinsville, North Carolina, at the age of 30. His mother found his body roughly four hours after they last conversed.
Discovery informed the show’s fans about Lance’s death via the official “Moonshiners” Twitter profile: ‘We are saddened to hear about the loss of Lance Waldroup, an adventurous distiller who was featured alongside his father throughout the early seasons of Moonshiners.”
Initially, the cause of death remained undisclosed, and many began wondering whether it had something to do with his obesity and somewhat unhealthy lifestyle, or other unknown health issues. Later, it was confirmed that the 580-pound reality star suffered from high blood pressure, and died of congestive heart failure caused by his corpulence and cardiomyopathy.
Why did Lance leave “Moonshiners”?
It was disclosed that Lance left the show to take care of his mother, Lynn Cape, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At the time, the family depended financially on Jeff, as Lynn’s diagnosis put both her and Lance out of work.
Lance then launched a GoFundMe account to gather enough money for his mother’s treatment and their living costs. In addition, Lance battled other demons that affected his physical and mental well-being; he lost his two siblings, Lyndsey and Lamar, to Cystic Fibrosis which took a heavy toll on him. Lance found solace in drugs to cope with reality, but eventually got clean – his parents disclosed: ‘This left Lance with no siblings. Lance suffered from extreme ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ and eventually turned to drugs. He was an addict for several years, and then decided to turn his life around. He went to rehab, and had become a recovered addict.”
In 2020, Jeff lost his job due to the global pandemic, so the family was not able financially to provide a decent burial for Lance. So they launched another GoFundMe profile the description of which reads: ‘We would like to give back to the Waldroup family in this time of need. We are looking to help raise as much money as possible in the next few weeks to be able to present to the family a proper burial. It is moments like these to help get one of our own through this most difficult time.”
What happened to Jim Hedrick? Did he die?
Two long-standing cast members of “Moonshiners,” Mark Ramsey and Digger Manes, credit their success in the production of moonshine to the late Popcorn Sutton and his partner Jim Tom Hedrick, another highly experienced and seasoned moonshiner. In one of the show’s episodes, the two talked about Jim Tom, saying: ‘”Of all the old-time shiners left in the Appalachia, none are more famous for their rye liquor than master distiller Jim Tom. This legendary outlaw has over 50 years of experience building copper stills, and perfecting his own distinct brand of white lightning.”
Jim Tom joined the show in the second season, and appeared through season six, sharing his knowledge and becoming one of the most favored members of the cast. His bio reads: ‘Jim Tom is a legendary moonshiner, master storyteller, and still maker. Over the years, he has become one of the most skilled moonshiners in Appalachian. Today, Jim Tom is passing his lifetime of experience on to a new generation of distillers.’
However, when the new season premiered, Jim was nowhere to be seen, so naturally fans began asking questions. Luckily, Jim Tom didn’t die, but partnered with Mark and Digger to go legitimate in making moonshine instead of furthering the illegal ways of distilling moonshine. The magic trio collaborated to create the Sugarland Distilling Company. Even though he’s heavily involved in the company’s new projects, Jim still makes his signature ‘unraged eye’.
Controversy on the show
Since it began airing, “Moonshiners” has faced a lot of criticism and backlash, especially from local officials who claim that the show isn’t quite as portrayed on TV. Being that production and distribution of untaxed moonshine constitutes a federal offense, it would seem that Discovery basically made a reality series that follows a group of people engaging in illegal activities. On the other hand, Virginia authorities have countered the show’s premise, disclosing that no illegal alcohol is being produced in the show.
Additionally, The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) stated in March 2012: ‘If an illegal activity were actually taking place, the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement would have taken action.’
They also requested that the producers put a disclaimer to clarify that the show is actually a dramatization. However, “the request was overlooked,” while the show’s producers continued to claim that the documentary content is actual. Furthermore, Magilla Entertainment has a reputation for creating unreal so-called reality programs. Regardless, Discovery has held ground that “Moonshiners” is a genuine representation of the moonshine business, and state before every episode that ‘Anyone making moonshine risks life-threatening injury or time in prison.”
Why was Tickle from “Moonshiners” in jail?
Steven Ray Tickle is one of the original cast members of “Moonshiners”, and also starred in the series spin-off “Tickle”.
If you watched the show, then you must remember Tickle, who also had political ambitions, and strived to better America’s society. In 2013, he revealed that he might run against US Representative Robert Hurt in Virginia’s 5th congressional district. Furthermore, he also expressed intentions to run for president, and in an interview, Tickle talked about the Affordable Care Act, calling it ‘crap’. His idea was to upgrade and reorganize the healthcare system, and make it more accessible. However, legal implications prevented Tickle from entering state office, as he had been arrested four times.
Given that Tickle is a moonshiner, many might jump to the conclusion that he was arrested due to his illegal business. Well, that isn’t the case – in 2013, Tickle was arrested for public intoxication, then two years later, he was apprehended by the authorities for the possession of a sawn-off shotgun, was convicted in 2016, and given a three-year-suspended penitentiary sentence.
During the same year, Tickle violated his probation conditions, and admitted to using drugs, namely cocaine, resulting in a 12-month lengthening of his probation, and forcing him to be on good behavior. However, his good behavior did not last long – Tickle was caught driving on a suspended license after he was in a car accident. Apparently, the judge was fed up with his constant propensity for breaking the law, and sentenced him to 18 months in jail.
Tickle’s unfortunate fate was shown in the series, as he was visited by Tim Smith in prison, and later transferred to a prison in Culpepper County. Despite his reckless behavior, he did regret committing offenses and said: ‘Everyone has regrets. But I’ll tell you what, you can get a lot of stuff back in your life, but one thing you can’t get back is time. I missed a whole lot of stuff while I’ve been in jail. My daughter going to college. I wasn’t there to take her and set her up in her dorm room and stuff. ‘
Whether depicted in a TV series or not, no one doubts that the activities of moonshiners will continue – the tradition is just too strong to fade away.