By Lynn Oldshue
“Good stories teach us about people, great ones alter the way we see ourselves. For many, the new podcast ‘S-Town’ has done just that.”
Actor Alec Baldwin on “Here’s The Thing,” about the podcast “S-Town”
“S-Town” is a record-setting podcast, downloaded over 40 million times since it went online March 28, 2017. It is popular in New York City and around the world. But S-Town, short for, “Shit Town,” is a story about real people in Woodstock, Alabama, a small town in Bibb County that is off the radar and the interstate.
(Spoiler Alert: This story reveals the major plot twist of “S-Town.”)
“The main character is John B. McElmore, an eccentric horologist (a maker of clocks or watches) who goes on rants about global warming, child molesters and the increasing gold reserves at the Russian central bank.
Episode one begins with a poetic description of fixing clocks by Brian Reed, the creator of “S-Town” who narrates the almost seven hours of the series in his smooth, calm, public radio voice. “There can be hundreds of tiny, individual pieces, each of which needs to interact with the others precisely . . I am told fixing an old clock can be maddening . . . Anyway, I only know all of this because years ago an antique clock restorer, John B. McLemore, contacted me and asked me to help him solve a murder.”
This is followed by the first words of John B.: “Somethin’ has happened. Somethin’ has absolutely happened in this town. There is just too much little crap for somethin’ not to have happened. I have about had enough of Shit Town and the things that go on.”
Music and a dramatic pause then Reed says, “This is Shit Town.”
This is how 40 million listeners have been drawn into “S-Town.” It is also a moment of decision for Southerners — listen to another story that makes us look crazy, or get caught up with an eccentric, manic-depressive, mesmerizing man who says he lives in the “child molester capital of the state,” where “people dump their dogs on the side of the road” in an “area that hasn’t advanced.”
“I go through stages of depression,” John B. says. “This is like living in the Darfur region of Sudan . . . I need to get out of my depression and tell someone what goes on here. I should have gotten out of this shit town in my 20s.”
He didn’t leave because his family lived on the 128 acres once owned by his grandfather and to him that meant something. He was also caring for 13 dogs and his mother with dementia.
Woodstock is 40 minutes south of Birmingham. Eighteen-wheelers haul chopped, stripped and stacked loblolly pines along Highway 11 (John B. says the log trucks haul away Woodstock’s legacy and landscape one tree at a time). The main attraction is the Cahaba lilies blooming on their namesake river in May and June and there is a burned-out liquor store next door to Crazy Bill’s Fireworks Stand. The center of town is the water tower that says “Welcome to Woodstock,” surrounded by Woodstock Drugs, Little Caesar’s Pizza and El Bazaar grocery store and gas station.
“S-Town” began with an email from John B. to the producers of This American Life, a radio show on NPR. The email said, “I live in a crummy little shit town in Alabama called Woodstock. I would like to tell your producers of two events that have happened here recently. I would hope you have the facilities to investigate.”
A few more emails from John B., and Reed left New York City to check out the story of a murder but it grew into a family feud, questionable hidden treasure, suicide and an attempt to understand a complicated man in a small Southern town.
John B. took pride in being smarter than most with his research into climate change and love of math, astronomy and astrolabes. He quoted from sundials (“tedious and brief”) and built a hedge maze of concentric circles with 64 gates and as many possible solutions in his backyard. He was charm and humor mixed with anger and irritability. During the reporting and development of the story, he killed himself on June 22, 2015, at age 49 by drinking cyanide. Two years later, his death would devastate listeners and cause a “shift” in the story. He told friends and Reed he would kill himself one day and kept a suicide note on file.
Manic depressives. Eccentrics. People like John B., who are prisoners of their own making. Every town and city has them, and the South claims to take pride in ours with t-shirts and cards that say, “Here in the South we don’t hide crazy. We parade it on the front porch and give it a cocktail.” It is funny, but not always true, and the people of Woodstock are unhappy about being defined by the story of John B.
“One man’s story does not speak for a whole community,” says a pharmacist at Woodstock Drugs. “It doesn’t represent who we are.”
“I know this show is big in Europe. A friend of a friend listened to it in London and wants to visit Woodstock, but her sister is afraid to meet me because she thinks I will be like the people on the show,” says Caitlyn who works at the drug store. “We aren’t all rednecks here.”
But John B.’s story is filled with rednecks, drug users and racists, not pharmacists or kind girls who wear “choose the hug life” t-shirts, in his self-described “clusterf–k of sorrow.”
John B. lived across the highway from the South-Forty trailer park. “I guess what I’m depressed about, because I’m looking out over the trees here and I realize that the people in the South-Forty trailer park have a much worse life than I do. But I think the thing that’s happened is that I’ve gotten myself in an almost, you know, sort of a prison of my own making, where all my friends have died off because I only had contact with people much older than me.”
He tells the story of driving past the South-Forty sign with his friend Roger and seeing a woman wearing nothing but a pink top, talking on a cell phone. Roger said, “Usually when you see jokers that look like that, they have done something to get like that.” This is one of John B.’s parables of discovery.
Tyler, who helped build John B.’s maze and became like a son, is another character in “S-Town.” He lived in South-Forty where the lots are big and filled with stereotypes of a Southern trailer park. Confederate flags fly from front decks and one hangs down a wall close to a motorcycle and plastic Santa Claus. Up the hill is a ragged American flag with three big-antlered bucks and “No Trespassing” signs are attached to trees or chain-link fences in almost every yard. A handwritten sign says, “Anyone not in this family is not allowed on this property unless invited.” The dog chained close by shows they mean it. There are also gardens of squash and tomatoes, birthday balloons and streamers, and little homes for gnomes.
“The show spread like wildfire around here when it came out,” says Jeff, who was working on utilities in South-Forty. “It is interesting and a great story but it is weird that people around the world know about us. It upset a lot of people the way it represented the area. You have crazy people everywhere you go. Clearly the John B. guy wasn’t right.”
Kendall Burt, whose family owns K3 lumber store in Woodstock, and much of the timberland in Bibb County, was portrayed as the story’s villain by John B. He now owns John B.’s house and land and has no plans to keep up the maze.
“It went full circle,” says Jeff. “A lot of people have asked Kendall to open up the property and let them see the house and walk through the maze, but there is probably too much liability.” (Locks, chains and a gate block the long dirt road to John B.’s house hidden in the woods).
Today, the hedges are brown and the neglected maze is turning to ruins as John B. predicted it would after he died.
It took three years to produce the seven episodes of “S-Town,” and since its release Reed has been on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and toured the U.S. Next month he goes to Australia with “We Need to Talk About S-Town.” Stories in The New Yorker, Time, The New York Post, The New York Times and The Guardian provide a glimpse at the popularity of the show and how outsiders perceive Woodstock and the South.
“The possible murder is not the only thing that makes John B. think that Woodstock is a shit town… It has incredible police corruption and terrible education; its residents are ‘rednecks,’ backward and ignorant and misguidedly religious. ‘Jee-bus is coming!’ McLemore says, disgustedly. (For a Northern, liberal NPR listener, hearing such things leveled against mostly conservative Southern whites, in a mellifluous spiel by a liberal Southern white man with a thick accent, is a mind-bender in itself — you feel implicated somehow, and voyeuristic.)…In the end, we empathize with almost every character, and find commonalities between them and ourselves.”
A columnist in The New York Post was more critical of the creators and Northern listeners, and called “S-Town” an “excuse for urban liberals to rubberneck.”
“Many of the residents of ‘S-Town,’ it turns out, are more sophisticated than Reed depicts, and a fair number view the podcast itself as fiction. “I like a good story,” Woodstock’s mayor told Vulture last week, and “S-Town,” he said, was “a really good story.”
“But it’s also a dangerous one, a narrative that allows well-off liberals to congratulate themselves for listening while reinforcing their own sense of intellectual, financial and political superiority. For all the flaws of ‘S-Town,’ this is its greatest, most dangerous failure, one that can only widen the chasm between red- and blue-state America.”
Maybe “S-Town” is popular because it is entertaining for rubber-necking liberals, or a voyeuristic window into the South that makes others feel better about themselves. It is a listening adventure through the filter of Faulkner. In his “Here’s the Thing” interview with Reed, Alec Baldwin describes the series as “Faulkneresque.” But many Southerners grew up in rural towns such as Woodstock. We have read Flannery O’Connor’s tales of Southern grotesques and even know our own versions, but we have been pulled into “S-Town,” too.
So what has “S-Town” taught us? Has it really altered the way listeners see themselves or helped us understand one another? Or does it widen the chasm between red states and blue states and confirm the Southern stereotypes people want to believe?
North or South, red or blue, big city or small town, we all have our John B’s: friends, family members or the person talking to himself on the street. Extraordinary, eccentric people walking a fine line between brilliance and depression. Some with addictions or thoughts of suicide or those who see the world differently but need help staying steady and balanced. How do we help them out of their own S-Town? Could anyone have saved John B.?
A visit to Woodstock proved that one man’s story is not everyone’s story, and the life of one of us doesn’t represent the lives of all of us. “S-Town” is real-life Southern gothic that gave interesting people a microphone and an audience, but it was followed by global attention and a nickname the town probably didn’t deserve. Stories and characters like these may be the heart of our rich Southern literature, but they exist far beyond the South. After all, any place, even New York City, can be someone’s Shit Town.