I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know what I got last week after listening to a podcast recommended by a friend.
After seven hours of “S-Town,” I finished with a lot of mixed emotions. The reporter in me heard one thing; the storyteller heard something a little different; and the small-town Alabama boy in me heard something else entirely.
The story is full of conflict and can leave those who listen to it conflicted, as well.
Here’s how “S-Town” is described on its website: “John despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks a reporter to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”
That gets your interest, but that tease does not do the story justice.
If you have not figured it out by now, “S-Town” is short for “S--- Town,” and John B. McLemore lives in S---town, Ala. He triggered the chain of events and more than three years of reporting by emailing a public radio producer in New York about the goings-on in his community. The story is told through the words of McLemore and others who live in and around Woodstock, a small Bibb County community between Bessemer and Tuscaloosa.
But Brian Reed, the host and executive producer, is as much a part of the story as the central characters. If Reed, who works on the public radio program “This American Life,” had not followed his reporting instincts, there would have been no story. “S-Town” comes from the producers of “Serial,” another blockbuster podcast.
I guess, one of my takeaways is it felt like a novel, but it was real.
“S-Town” had more than 10 million downloads in its first few days of distribution. It is has been out for six weeks, and some have suggested that number has reached an astounding 20 million downloads.
John B. McLemore was a troubled man — a brilliant, troubled man. Reed does an amazing job of capturing McLemore’s internal struggle of being out of place in the one place where that is most difficult — home.
All of us from small Alabama towns know people like McLemore. They stand out, and sometimes not in the best sorts or ways.
Variety.com describes the work as “Southern Gothic-esque investigative-journalism.” At times, it felt more like voyeurism than journalism. That is where the journalist in me battled the Alabama boy as the story unfolded.
If you have spent any time at all in small Alabama towns, you know the folks there have a way with words. And the less formal the education, the better folks are with the words. For example, one of the primary characters — I am trying not to reveal too much here — refers to a gay man in this way: he might “have sugar in his tank.”
That is certainly an Alabama way of saying it.
At the end of the day, what troubled me the most was how it ended. If he had known how his story would have ended, I wonder if McLemore would have been so forthcoming to a big-city reporter parachuting into a rural Alabama town.
We will never know the answer to that.
After listening to Reed’s work, it makes me wonder what stories I may be missing in my own backyard. One thing 34 years of doing this has taught me is, everybody has a story. Some of them are better than others.
When he reached out to Reed, McLemore probably had no idea he would be the story at the end of the day.
Sometimes the story changes.