Fronted by This American Life producer Brian Reed, the seven part podcast takes listeners deep into Bibb County, Alabama. The previews ahead of S-Town’s launch were surprisingly limited, revealing very little about what was to come. And there’s good reason for that.
The following article contains S-Town spoilers. Like, a lot of them. If you don’t want to spoil anything, look away now. If investing seven hours into a podcast without any information sounds daunting, trust us- you won’t regret it. If you’re not hooked instantly, by halfway through Chapter II you definitely will be.
“John B. McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama”
That’s the subject line of an email sent to This American Life producer Brian Reed back in 2013. ‘Shittown’, the S-Town of the podcast’s title, is Woodstock, Alabama. And John B. McLemore is, well, that’ll take a while to explain.
John B. McLemore was born and raised in the town that would one day become Woodstock, and would later, to him at least, become Shittown. An incredibly smart and gifted horologist, over the course of his life John became increasingly obsessed with climate change, resource depletion and economic collapse.
These obsessions, coupled with severe depression and hatred for the town he lived in and the people who lived there, eventually led to his contact with the incredibly likeable Brian Reed. John believed that a murder had taken place in Woodstock, and that his town was so corrupt it had been covered up by powerful families and the police. That’s where we are in Chapter I, and it’s the reason Reed heads to Woodstock in the first place.
“For thousands and thousands of years we didn’t have clocks, calendars or any method for telling the time. And time was happening nonetheless.
As humans we must have sensed it, maybe we heard the rhythm of it as we sharpened a tool.”
From the first time we meet him in the podcast it’s obvious that John is a huge character, probably a radio producer’s dream interviewee. Loud, outspoken and incredibly opinionated, almost immediately you feel like John’s presenting S-Town just as much as Reed.
His immeasurable grievances with the ‘criminals, runaways and hillbillies’ of Woodstock accompany the investigation into the alleged murder. Here S-Town cleverly puts Reed in the back seat as John introduces him, and the audience to Shittown and the people who live there.
What makes S-Town different to This American Life and Serial is the level of host involvement on show. As the series goes on, Reed goes from an observer to being thrown directly into the story. It’s as if WBEZ’s adherence to Star Trek’s prime directive is shattered, and we’re not just hearing a story unfold, we’re part of it.
This level of involvement is incredibly important as we eventually find out the supposed murder never actually happened. But in the first of a few genuinely chilling moments from Reed, we learn that “before this is over, someone will die”.
In June 2015, John B. McLemore killed himself.
“[A man] tired in a way he couldn’t put into words”
It’s this moment, from the end of Chapter II into the opening of Chapter III, where we realise what S-Town’s all about. The phone call where Reed learns of John’s death is some of the most powerful and emotionally harrowing audio we’ve ever heard, and only goes to emphasise how involved Reed, and by extension the audience, are in the story.
Because it’s here we realise that S-Town isn’t about a murder, in fact you could argue it’s not even about Woodstock. It’s the story of John B. McLemore. A seven-hour long obituary, unpacking and investigating a man who was so much more than meets the eye, and whose actions and life impacted so many.
S-Town is a masterclass in storytelling. You’d expect as much from a show delivered by This American Life and Serial, but listening to the credits at the end of each chapter highlights an all-star magnum opus for the format of podcasting. Julie Snyder, Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig are all here, using the skills they’ve refined from ushering in a podcast renaissance in the wake of Serial to create arguably the greatest achievement in podcasting- ever.
Story consulting from Starlee Kine doesn’t come as a surprise here either. While we can’t know exactly how much involvement each credited person had in every bit of S-Town, there’s a sense of careful unfolding here that reminds us completely of what made Mystery Show so unbelievably special.
While S-Town’s use of music is much more muted than Nick Thorburn‘s backing to Serial, the sound here is again placed in a way so careful and deliberate. From Daniel Hart‘s Bibb County, which comes across as iconic and memorable as Bad Dream, through to The Zombies’ A Rose For Emily closing each episode, every second of S-Town is designed in a way that imitates the perfection of clockwork analogised so heavily in the show.
“Through these doors pass the most important people on Earth. The citizens of Bibb County”
S-Town really gets going after John’s suicide. The following five episodes follow Reed as he continues talking to the people of Woodstock, and those who knew John, over the next few years. At first we found ourselves asking how Reed could fill another five hours talking about one guy, but as it turns out, there was so much more to John B. McLemore than met the eye.
For a man who saw tattoos as part of the problem that made Woodstock Shittown, John was covered in them. In fact, his tattoo appointments always came at the right time to cover a bill that could have closed the store down. John literally ‘sacrificed his skin’ to save the people he always claimed he hated.
We learn about the pseudo-parental relationships he fostered repeatedly with at risk youths in Woodstock, the people he impressed upon with his horology skills, and that John B. McLemore actually helped create the town of Woodstock.
One of the running themes in S-Town is that things, and people, aren’t necessarily what they seem. The strongest line in Serial came from the epilogue to the final chapter, where Sarah Koenig, frustrated, said “just give us the facts, man”. And that’s what Reed does.
There’s no strong message about right or wrong to take away here- every piece of S-Town is of two sides. It’s a story about the good and bad. Does the good John B. McLemore did make up for the times he seriously hurt some of the people closest to him? Is Tyler Goodson a loving son figure, or a common criminal? Is John’s cousin Rita worried about the health of a frail woman with dementia, or is she just treasure hunting?
They’re just some of the questions raised in S-Town, and it’s to the credit of Reed that he doesn’t answer them. The show explores the people of Bibb County just as much as it does John, and openly acknowledges how problematic some of the views held by its residents are.
While the residents of Woodstock are much more than the rednecks John often said they were, there’s unnerving conversations about gender, race and sexuality running through S-Town. Chapter VI is a brilliant look into hidden sexuality in small-town America, and like every episode of the podcast, reveals multitudes in John that make the man seem so much more than appears.
“He saw nothing but darkness in the future. Shittown for John was not believing that anything good would last”
Over the past few years podcasting has grown from a niche interest medium into a global phenomenon. It’s no wonder that some of the names and institutions that propelled podcasting to where it is today were involved in S-Town- if anything this feels like a culmination of the lessons in investigation, sound design and storytelling that have been learnt over the process.
And while we’ve mentioned the influence that those behind Serial and Mystery Show have obviously had on this podcast, if This American Life were to end this week- S-Town would feel like a fitting ending and tribute to the show.
It typifies absolutely everything that makes This American Life so special. A desire to explore the stories that other people wouldn’t care about, those people, places and events that don’t always seem newsworthy. Sure, on the surface you could describe S-Town as a ‘podcast about a suicide’, but that’d hardly do it justice.
S-Town is a podcast about John B. McLemore. A podcast about family and community and small town America. About the inner workings of antique clocks, chemistry, piercings and horticulture. From love, hate, sex and depression through to the very foundation of the impact human beings can have on each other, S-Town is a podcast that’s one of a kind.
— Brian Reed (@BriHReed) March 29, 2017
S-Town is available wherever you download podcasts.