On the verge of embarking on another six-hour road trip, I decided to scour the internet for some recent, longform podcasts. Browsing over Outside Online’s recent articles, I came across one entitled “The Best Podcasts of Spring.” Bingo! The first podcast listed on the article contained the header: Best Hyped-Up Southern Gothic Treasure Hunt: S-Town.
I had no knowledge of this podcast, but the header immediately caught my attention. As an avid fanatic of Southern US Gothic literature (Faulkner, O’Connor, etc.), I figured that this could be worth time. Furthermore, once seeing that the podcast was created by the makers of Serial and This American Life podcasts, my intrigue became piqued that much more. Dropping all 7 chapters, and hours, of the podcast on March 28, S-Town was perfect for my drive: a new, previously-unknown podcast to keep me attentive across my 300+ mile drive.
In regards to the subject matter of the podcast, all I had was what Outside Online had offered:
“…it takes place in Alabama, is a work of nonfiction, and centers around “a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.””
It sounded like a basic true-crime story, probably rife with murder, money, and inquisitive looks into people interwoven in Southern US society. However, rather than listening to a mildly interesting story about who committed what crime, and who stole who’s money, etc., I was greeted with a touching, delicate, and elegant podcast about a troubled, complex, articulate man who felt that he never belonged to his hometown, and that the world around him had no future.
S-Town revolves around many people and doings, but the foremost character is John B McLemore, an intellectual, reclusive man who had at one time emailed the This American Life reporters and writers about an unsolved crime and mystery lingering among his hometown of “Shit Town,” Woodstock, Alabama. Following communication with John for some months, producer Brian Reed decided to look into John’s hometown mystery. John, as a character, is much more complex than we initially imagined – he is not just some rambling man, worried about possible crimes and the degradation of his hometown and the world at large, but an intense, reflective intellectual. John was a former horologist, renowned across the Eastern US states for his ability to restore classical clocks; an avid reader who could recite books and poems by memory; an angry, pained, paranoid soul who was worried for the future of the world due to climate change and others inaction for social progressivism; a joyous, happy man who appreciated the simple tinkering moments of life; yet someone who could sink into deep, emboldened states of depression.
Like the clocks in which John worked on, there were specific gears and levers that made him tick, swaying like the pendulum of a grandfather clock between bouts of ecstasy and depression; however, only an expert could have known the true John McLemore. While Brian extracts stories from John’s and his acquaintances mouths, there is little resolve. We could only know the mere machinations of John’s thoughts and actions, but not the exact and absolute man.
Once putting the podcast on in my car, I was nearly hunched over the steering wheel, pacing along the highway towards upstate NY, waiting for what twist or turn would could next in the unraveling of Shit Town and its inhabitants. For a story that sounds like a Sunday morning reader, I was instead left with an emotional and tragic collection of recorded memoirs. Yet, the story of Shit Town is not some ultimatum for Southern tragedy, as there is a great hope that lies within the characters and their personal strife. Whether through the eyes or biographical inspection of John or his acquaintances and family, the listener is given an experience that investigates what it means to be an outsider among an area you call home and the means in which we survive within it – finding meaningful work, fostering connections among unlikely friends, and how we accept what others are unwilling to admit.
I’ve been obviously vague throughout most of this, and this is because I want to give as little away as possible. If you have the time, listen to this podcast. Whether consuming a chapter a day or binging it across a car ride, like myself, will leave you with a devastating, heartfelt podcast in search for the truth.