“And there was thunder, thunder over thunder road/Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load/There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst/The law they swore they’d get him, but the devil got him first,” Robert Mitchum sang in “The Ballad of Thunder,” the theme song to the iconic movie “Thunder Road.”
“Thunder Road” is about a family of bootleggers running moonshine in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Moonshine now is in vogue. Where it was once confined to the poor who dwelt in shacks, Popcorn Sutton’s XXX Tennessee White Whiskey and Short Mountain Shine, which is distilled at Short Mountain Distillery in Cannon County, are sold in liquor stores and served in affluent homes and upscale bars all across America.
How did I come across the following story?
A friend entrusted me with a black notebook – yes, an old-fashioned notebook, not a darn jump drive – in which he has a handwritten account of some of his relatives who were in the business of making and running moonshine in Cannon and DeKalb counties decades ago.
In an account from Smithville, Tenn., in 1931, his relative wrote, “It was freezing cold, topped off by spitting snow. With the Great Depression having mainstream America in a financial stranglehold, the U.S. government was handing out rations of sugar, flour, coffee and other bare-necessity staples.
But Luther had been turned down because that fancy government man dispersing the rations let Luther know, quick-like, that Luther’s father owned too much land, and Luther needed to go to his father for help.
After several more attempts to procure rations, with no success, Luther walked away from the government agent. Mid-stride, Luther turned around to the agent and said, ‘Well, I guess I can go home and fire up ole Red.’”
“Red” was a moonshine still. The reason the still was called “Red” was when the boiler would heat up, it would maintain a reddish tint to it. Too, Luther was cooking his mash with fire and wood, not propane.
And to borrow the title of a Hank Williams Jr. song, thus began a “Family Tradition,” with Luther teaming up with his brother, Toy, in the moonshine business.
In another account dated 1965,
“Doris, Toy’s outlaw son, was hot rodding around the Square in his ’57 Chevy. When Doris found an open spot, he parked the Chevy and walked inside the barber shop, located on the Square.
Once inside, Doris locked stares with Brenis, who was sitting in the barber’s chair getting a haircut. Fists, guns, knives, how would it go down?
Well, the fact of the matter is that Doris and Brenis were first cousins, Brenis being Luther’s son. Both Doris and Brenis smiled, and for good reason. They hadn’t seen each other in many years.”
After slugging a prosecutor in court over a child-support ruling, and doing 30 days in jail, Brenis fled Tennessee and changed his name. However, after going through more wives than King Solomon, nearly guttin’ to death a man in Alabama over a woman (what else), operating a string of beer dives in Florida, Brenis was back home at the age of 27. Doris was a few years younger.
Doris and Brenis would eventually partner up in the moonshining business and make what was known as some of the “smoothest 130 proof liquor around.”
One excerpt from the notebook that I particularly liked is this one: “A man known to drink too much, with whom Doris was partnering, showed up late for work at the still.
Doris already had the pot boiling, and the batch was brewing. Angry at the imbibing partner, Doris, to make a point, went ahead and paid him for half of the batch and then proceeded to knock the hell out of him!”
Though I gave you just a taste, this story is a barrelful and could be made into its own “Thunder Road.”