A new podcast takes a nuanced look at real life in small-town Americaby Lucinda Smyth / April 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
“I am 49 years old,” a thick Southern accent drawls through the phone. “I shoulda got out of this goddamn f***in’ shit-town in my twenties. I shoulda done something useful with my life.”
The voice belongs to John B McLemore: a polymathic clock-maker who—like his mother and grandfather before him—has lived in Woodstock, Alabama all his life. He is also its fiercest critic. In 2012, McLemore sent an email to journalist Brian Reed, captioned “John B McLemore lives in Shit town Alabama,” in which he claimed that Woodstock was rife with corruption. There had been a police sexual abuse scandal, he said, as well as a murder cover-up. “What it needs,” he told Reed, “is for someone like you to come down here and blow this pathetic little Baptist shit town out off the map.” After a year and a half of regular contact with McLemore, Reed went to Woodstock to investigate.
This is the premise of S-Town, a new podcast from the creators of Serial and This American Life, hosted by Reed. The chances are you’ll already have heard some of the buzz around the show. When the seven-episode series finally dropped (all in one go, on 28th March), it received four million downloads in four days. Since then S-Town has attracted a huge amount of attention and praise. The New York Times commended it for “transcend[ing] the podcast procedural with a destabilising narrative”; elsewhere it has been described as “life-affirming,” and a “kaleidoscopic non-fiction novel.”
S-Town is an extraordinary feat—on one level a crime-tinged mystery, full of shocking twists; on the other a rich character portrait, painted with empathy and humour. Over the course of seven episodes we follow Reed’s journey through Woodstock to learn the truth behind the rumours in McLemore’s email. What really happened to apparent murder victim Dillon Nichols? Why is there no account of his death in the local news or on the internet? These questions are intriguing—but ultimately the series is not about scandal. Rather, it’s about Woodstock, and John B McLemore himself.
A large part of the podcast’s success is down to Reed’s thoughtful narration. Reed is a mesmerising communicator, carefully drawing out the complexities and eccentricities of his protagonist. Simply put, John—it feels inappropriately formal to refer to him by his last name—is…