A Conversation With the Creator of the Record-Breaking Podcast
By Martha Polk
“John B. McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama.”
That was the email subject line that first caught journalist Brian Reed’s attention. Three years of reporting and several unforeseen twists later, Reed’s “S-Town” seven-part podcast series premiered this spring with a record-shattering 40+ million downloads. It manages to be wildly popular as well as smart, methodical, and a marvel of literary craftsmanship.
Earnest in emotion and potent in story, “S-Town” pursues the particularities of one life and one small Southern town until, like a fire-gilded coin, they suddenly glimmer with universal importance.
What begins as a murder mystery unravels into an enthralling portrait of John B. McLemore and his “shittown,” more commonly known as Woodstock, Alabama. It includes the perverse delight of listening to John pontificate (with an impossibly creative cannon of expletives) on climate change and the downfall of civilization. But this is only the tip of the melting iceberg (so to speak), as Brian brings us into John’s world of enigmatic old clocks and poetic sundials, poisonous mercury and hidden gold, garden mazes and nipple rings, a powerful father-son bond between McLemore and a younger friend, Tyler Goodson. John’s eccentric genius also lends him an incisive perspective on his hometown, which he believes, in his gentlest words, “just hasn’t advanced.” But the shittown that so tortures John with its ignorance and religiosity (to name just two of his vast complaints) is also, as Brian draws out, inescapably part of him — his founding text and the thing that won’t stop nagging his soul.
I wanted to talk to Brian about all of this, but I especially wanted to talk about how he evaded the stereotypes and condescension that so often structure stories reported out from the South. True to form, Brian’s answers turned out to be downright elegant in their simplicity and humility. To dig deeper, we talked through the details of one especially polarizing scene and discussed the ways Brian remains affected by Woodstock, its residents, and the one and only John B. McLemore.
Warning: If you have not listened to “S-Town” yet, this interview contains, or at least comes near to, some spoilers.
Martha Polk: So, as a journalist, you travel across the country talking to people with all different experiences, and there's probably always a challenge to avoid cliches and dig into actual human stories, but in your mind, are there specific challenges to reporting out from the South? Or, I guess, specifically with “S-Town,” in telling a national audience about Woodstock, Alabama?
Brian Reed: In my mind, I mean…no. Since it came out, there's been such surprise and it's been very nice, people have been very kind in saying, “You didn't judge the South,” or “They are three-dimensional characters; they're not cliché.”
Brian: But it didn't occur to me to do it any other way. It's just the kind of story that I've learned to do by being at “This American Life” for seven years, you know? But I've learned from the response to [“S-Town”], and I'm like, “Oh, wow, we're really confused by each other in this country!” People from the South still feel misrepresented and are so refreshed when they don't feel that way, I guess. And then people from other parts of the country actually do have weird, two-dimensional views of the South. I was shocked that that's actually real.… I guess we're just really baffled by each other and don't understand each other, which is really sad.
Martha: Yeah it is, and I want to dig into that a little bit. One trend I've noticed in the national media is that even the best longform journalism sometimes falls into these traps of structuring a story around humanizing a Southern stereotype. But there was never any point in “S-Town” where I felt like John or Woodstock, Alabama — like their humanity or peculiarity — was out of place or defiant of some stereotype. And I guess I hear you saying that's just a product of what you feel like good journalism should be?
Brian: Well, that wasn't the premise of the story — to bust any stereotype. The premise of the story was literally a guy contacting me and asking me to help him, and I'm interested in the guy and these individuals who were living through their individual experiences that happen to be in this place. But I can totally see how you can fall into that trap if your goal is to upend a stereotype.
Martha: A spot where all of this comes together for me is in that scene in the tattoo shop, especially with the character named Bubba, who is saying some really vile, racist stuff, and then later gives this almost touching account of John and Tyler’s relationship. There’s just so much more in that scene, too, so I wanted to hear a little bit from you about your thought process in that tattoo shop, and the interview process with this guy Bubba in particular.
Brian: He and others said some very terrible, racist stuff that made me uncomfortable. I was also in a place where I felt slightly uncomfortable already, trying to get information about this murder that I think could have happened. So, any situation like this — something you don’t agree with gets said, and you have to make a calculation: Am I gonna speak up or not? In this case, I just kind of tried to change the subject, which is a decision that, I mean, I don’t love the feeling it gives me. But my reasons for doing that, whether right or not, were that I was there trying to figure something else out, and also didn’t know these people and didn’t know what would be gained by arguing with them about this at that moment.
Martha: So are you there just thinking, “OK, I’m here to find out about this murder and see what people know,” or is there part of your brain that’s kind of editorializing as you go, thinking like, “Whoa, I want to record this and I’m not sure what role it’ll play, but this scene is definitely something”?
Brian: Yeah, I’m there to find out information, but also I’m learning about the place, and I know already that the place is an important part of the story. I was also interested in learning about John, and these guys seemed to have an interesting perspective on him. So when Bubba starts speaking about John, I’m interested in what he’s saying; I was learning about this guy I had come to know but had a lot of questions about, and [also about] how he even knew about this murder in the first place through this crew of guys, who worked on his yard and also owned this tattoo shop. So I was learning about John’s relationship to some of the elements in this town that he professed to hate.
Martha: Yeah, so what do you think the scene with Bubba brings to the “S-Town” story, beyond information about John?
Brian: I think it’s an important scene. It’s a scene that made me start to realize that John’s relationship to his town was much more complicated, and not exactly how I understood it or how he was portraying it even. And also it gives insight into his relationship with Tyler. Those are the two things I took from it: John hangs out with this crew of people, while also talking shit about them. And also these guys are saying, “He really loves Tyler,” you know? I was getting that sense already — Tyler told me, “John’s like a daddy to me,” and I got the sense I was observing that — but to hear people who knew them both well say it, and give an example of how John was sacrificing his skin for them.
Martha: Yeah, it’s such a moving reveal in the story that John’s basically keeping this tattoo shop alive with his own body…
Brian: Yeah, it’s just super arresting.
Martha: And your answer is so instructive, Brian, because again you’re just so story-driven. I keep finding myself fishing for you to answer with something like, “Oh, yeah, that scene with Bubba was an important cultural backdrop,” but instead you’re saying, “Only insofar as it serves the story,” which gets back at what you initially said about not being after upending stereotypes, and instead just trying to figure out who people are and what happened.
Brian: It’s such a practical concern. I mean, I don’t, practically, know how to make a story out of cultural backdrop. I only know how to make a story out of the basic elements of story, which are character, plot, scene — you know what I mean? The cultural stuff is secondary.
Martha: So, in terms of that tattoo parlor scene, how did you decide in the editing process what to keep and what to lose, in terms of the picture you were painting both with particular details about John, but also just as a scene?
Brian: Yeah, it was a hard scene to write and to structure because … I don’t want to force you to like these people. That’s up to you. You can feel however you want about them, and I think there’s lots of reasons to not like them.
Brian: And I feel that, too. And there was more that happened there than just, like, ignorant and hateful racist comments. That was, of course, an important part of the mix, so I put in enough where I feel like you get a clear impression of that part of this place. But also I wanted to put in there how these guys see themselves, which was as this group of outcasts. In terms of their world, which is an overwhelmingly white one, they see themselves as the persecuted ones, and so I thought that it was important to be fair to them, but also to give context to where certain views or language might come from. That was the mission of the place that they built. I mean, [the tattoo shop] is called “Black Sheep Ink” for a reason. And also [I wanted to include] the fun they were having, both with each other and with me being there: the guy with the “Feed Me” tattoo, and just tellin’ stories and laughing, and talkin’ shit about John, their commiserating. And then the other stuff I was interested in was: What do I learn about the murder? What do people make of John? Which leads into Bubba talking about John more and, in particular, you know, “The thing you need to know about John is that he loves Tyler.”
Martha: That scene also feels like a spot where it might be tempting to withdraw into the narrator’s perspective and your own experience. You are very much present as a character in that moment — and I think importantly so — but you’re also not overbearingly filtering the whole scene through just your own anxiety or discomfort…
Brian: [Laughing] I appreciate that. That’s what I wanted in the end, was for you to feel that way. And that comes from editing ’cause I’m sure there were edits where I did go too far.… But also, I’m only there because I’m me, you know? A black reporter, a female reporter, would not have had the same experience that I had there, and I think it was important to acknowledge that. Like, it’d be weird to be completely out of it, ’cause I’m allowed in that back room and treated the way I was treated because of certain aspects of who I am.
Martha: Right, and that you’re granted this access that you are not asking for, you know? Clearly you are not down with some seriously white supremacist talk, but there’s this tacit cultural assumption these guys are making about you, that this shit would fly…
Brian: Yeah, or they’re testing me.
Martha: Oh, right…
Brian: I feel like it could be either. Like a bunch of people from the South have told me since that they recognize that kind of scenario, and they’ve seen happen this type of testing outsiders, kinda fucking with them. I think that was definitely part of it — they got a kick out of this dude from New York being there with this microphone. I’ve since talked to Bubba, and, I mean … I found this scene to be quite polarizing — and betraying, in terms of people’s reactions to it, which has been interesting. I’ve noticed that certain white people from the North in the beginning were made uncomfortable by it, almost to the point of not believing it and basically insinuating that I … that the people making the racist comments didn’t realize that they might go on the air…
Martha: Oh, fascinating. That did not occur to me…
Brian: That’s happened from a few people, like white reporters from the North that I’ve talked to. And then when I’ve talked to white people from the South, in a number of instances, unprompted, they were like, “Oh, that scene especially really struck a nerve with me and made me cringe, but I totally related to being in a scenario like that.” The people of color I’ve spoken to are split on it. I’ve heard people say, “I completely appreciate that you included that in the way that you did and I thought that was important,” and then other people thought that I didn’t push back on it enough. I think both are valid reactions, too. And also, none of the people of color felt that it was surprising that people would say this into a microphone … so it really betrays your background and your own life experience — your reaction to this scene. So yeah, I hadn’t spoken to Bubba since that night. I kept trying to contact him and tell him this was gonna come out, but he hadn’t gotten back to me. And then three weeks after it came out, he wrote me a Facebook message saying, “Call me.”
Martha: Oh, lord.
Brian: I called him. We hadn’t spoken in three years. He said he’d listened to the story twice all the way through…
Martha: Oh, my…
Brian: …and loved it, and thought it was an amazing story about John and he really appreciated all the stuff he learned about him — loved all that part. He said, “It’s true, we all thought that Kabrahm (Burt, the person McLemore originally suspected of murder) had killed someone and you’re right, like, we didn’t do anything, and it took you and John comin’ down here to get to the bottom of it. And that is messed up.” That was a big realization he had. And then he also said, “My old lady is getting a little upset ’cause people are online calling me a racist and a white supremacist, but that’s all right, man. You know, I said those things, and you got both sides of me, and I’ve changed a bit since then” … and then he went on to explain how he’d “changed” by using the N-word several times…
Martha: Jesus, dude.
Brian: You know, how he “doesn’t use it to refer to skin color, but rather your character.”
Brian: And I said, “Well, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree on this, Bubba.” And then, when I offered to give him instructions on how to make his Facebook private or something, he was like, “Naw, man, don’t worry about it. You treated me fair.” He thought his portrayal was fair, you know? Like, those are just things that he actually believes, you know? Unfortunately.
Martha: Yes, and that plays into the kind of differing reactions that you’ve been getting about the scene. I’ve heard some shock that people from the South are OK about that scene, or that the people in it would be OK about that being on the air. But that’s not a crazy portrayal; that’s these guys’ actual world.
Brian: That [reaction] is just also … super paternalistic, and I think it’s just a weird response, but anyway.… People don’t get out enough.
Martha: [Laughing] Yeah, so along these same lines, one of my favorite moments in the series is near the end, and you have this beautiful summarizing sentence, "So much of the stuff John said he hated about Shittown — Harleys, tattoos, misogyny, homophobia, racism — he said he despised it, but that stuff was part of him, too”…
Brian: That's a lot of what the story is about. I'm glad that jumped out at you. To me, so much of the story is just how we are of the places we're from, but we also create the places that we're from. The relationship between who we become and where we're from, to me, is a lot of what the story is about, and it's such a big part of John. His loathing of Shittown is his loathing of himself in a lot of ways. You hate this place that you're from your whole life — how could you not hate parts of yourself, or vice-versa?
Martha: Yeah, let's talk about John a little bit. One of the main intrigues for me about him as a character is that he's just radically, almost aggressively unique, but then has these incredible elements that, like, anyone with a beating heart can connect to. I was thinking too about this specificity and these details that John brings to the story, just because of who he is. So I wanted to ask you about the role that John played in the literary or novelistic qualities of “S-Town,” how John as a subject brought some of the literariness.
Brian: Yes. It was the actual, specific story of John in Woodstock that inspired the idea of doing something more literary and novelistic — it was an organic thing. We were noticing the literary nature of this story and a lot of that did have to do with John. John knew it, too. He was very-self aware about that. As I say in the story, he gave me fiction, incredible fiction as homework. And he had a sense of his life and his personality as something dramatic and literary. He would quote things like Balzac in reference to his own life, not to mention actually building literary metaphors in his own backyard…
Martha: [Laughing] Yeah, exactly! I love how deliberate you get in the series saying that John is “handing me these metaphors he knows I can’t resist”: mazes and clocks and time and all of this stuff.
Brian: [Laughing] Yeah, he was certainly aware of the story and of himself, and a couple times, when I was down there for my trip to visit him, he said at least twice, as I was getting more interested in Tyler and stuff, he was like, "I knew you were going to come down here and find a story that was more interesting than the one that you came down here for." He said that a couple of times to me.… I don't know though, it blows my mind that this — this series, this whole thing — is the story of a listener. That really blows my mind. Just one listener. How many of those people are out there?
Martha: Yeah, totally. Which leads me to … at this point, now that the series has been out for many weeks, what is Woodstock, Alabama to you? Who are its people to you now?
Brian: [Pause] I don't know. I'm trying to figure that out.… I'm still in pretty regular touch with a lot of people from there … and I feel like as long as people want to stay in touch with me, I'll always stay in touch with them. That's how I feel about it. I don't know if it's to any end or whatever, except that we are in each other's lives in this weird way, and if they ever want me to stop annoying them or being part of it, that's their prerogative and I'm OK with that, you know? As long as they are keeping in correspondence or giving me a call, I'll always answer. People have shared a lot with me, and I'm grateful for it, and I like knowing what's going on with them. But it's weird. There's not a story anymore.The motivation of it is gone, but I still have an interest and care about what's going on in these folks' lives.
Martha: Yeah, I mean, who is John to you now? It just strikes me as this really potentially difficult project of reconciliation where you got to know this person, and then you did this really unique story, and then now you're doing all this press. I just wonder, how does one reconcile all of that?
Brian: The press is weird. It makes me feel a little bit removed from the story. But it hit me right after it came out. That week was the first time the emotion of John, the relationship to his life, had hit me in quite a while — like since he died, probably, and the couple of months after. There were a few moments in the last few weeks [of working on the story] where I started to reckon with, like, “Oh, I'm not going to get to spend time with John.” I felt good because I was spending a lot of time thinking about him — and, you know, listening to him — and I started to realize that my life is going to be bereft of that in a few weeks, so there were a few emotional moments. And then after it came out, just seeing people talk about him online and be so moved by him, and talk about him as just this person who really stayed with them for all sorts of different reasons, you know? Or to see people in climate change marches put his name or quote him on a sign — it's so moving. It makes me emotional to think about and I don't know really… just, it happening makes me feel moved, you know? I don't know. I'm still figuring it out, I guess.
Martha: Of course.
Brian: It was the variety of people that were responding to him in the story, too, you know? People who make movies in Hollywood and people from my life who I haven't talked to in a long time texting me about how great John was and the story, but then also, lots of people from Woodstock and from Alabama and from the South, people of all backgrounds. It's just the variety of people that have responded, and that's so cool to me, and overwhelming. It’s really awesome and emotional, and emotionally draining, but in a good way.
Martha: Absolutely. I mean, there’s that amazing moment when you're down there, where he says something like, “When someone says ‘John B. McLemore,’ you'll always know who they're talking about." And you say, like, "Oh my God, John, are you kidding? I'll never forget you." I think there is this kind of awesome quality — both in maybe a crass way for the success of this project, but also it must be for you in a personal way — that this is an unforgettable person and character, and people are responding to that.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, even if I never made a story out of it, I was never going to forget that man. He made a huge impression on me.