Arts & Culture
The Road to S-Town
Meet Brian Reed, the radio reporter behind the Alabama-set podcast everyone’s talking about
On the surface, the premise of S-Town—the record-breaking podcast from the team at This American Life and Serial—could have easily fallen prey to stereotypes about the South: New York reporter comes to small-town Alabama to meet a quirky character who believes a murder has happened and that the killer has gotten away with it.
When that claim unravels, what unfolds instead over seven “chapters” is a nuanced portrait of a brilliant horologist named John B. McLemore—the man who invited host Brian Reed down to Woodstock, just southwest of Birmingham—and a compelling cast of his friends, family, and foes. As for avoiding stereotypes, Reed says, “I always just assume that every place is more complicated than I understand.”
Woodstock proved to be incredibly complicated—and the whodunit that drew Reed there the least of the town’s mysteries. Propelled by cryptic characters and a tragic twist, S-Town garnered sixteen million downloads in just its first week, becoming the number one podcast in ten countries. To get a better idea of what led Reed to this sensitive, winding story—one that took him more than three years to report and assemble—you can listen to his conversation with John Huey on Garden & Gun’s Whole Hog podcast. Here, we wanted to go even farther down the rabbit hole with Reed.
Be warned: Spoilers abound.
McLemore hated Woodstock—so much so that he called it “Shittown,” hence the name of the podcast. What did you end up liking about the place?
I liked the casualness and laidbackness, coming from New York. I rarely made appointments for interviews; it was often just like, “I’m here, can we meet up?” There are also some very beautiful parts of Bibb County. There’s this lake, Bibb County Lake, that I would go to sometimes when I needed a breather, and I would just sit there and look at the lake as people fished. That was lovely. The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, likewise, was just stunning. And there’s one barbecue joint, Promise Land Bar-B-Que, that I really, really liked.
photo: Andrea Morales
What would you order there?
I don’t usually eat meat, but I eat it there. I would get their brisket, baked beans.
That’s a pretty good testimonial. Did you do anything else for fun?
In Bessemer, there’s what I’ve heard called the last juke joint in Alabama, that’s run by this guy named Gip [Gip’s Place]. He just has a juke joint in his backyard, and it’s hopping every Saturday night. It’s great. It’s BYOB. It was a place where I saw a lot of different types of people hanging out and mixing, and just listening to music, and I really liked it there. One time my wife came with me on a reporting trip, and I took her.
But there were things you didn’t like.
I didn’t like the bigotry that I found. That was the most upsetting thing. And the ways that, in certain conversations, people make assumptions about you as a white person, and think it’s okay to say certain things, like you’re in on a joke or something. But people were very open, and willing to meet with you, talk for a while. It’s a reporter’s dream.
Regarding that openness, you said in a previous interview that in Alabama, “people seem to have a storyteller’s instinct bred in them.” Southerners often pride themselves on those storytelling abilities.
All I know is, I feel like I lucked out, in terms of the world of this story. Almost everyone who was important to it was a good talker and storyteller, and I don’t know if that’s the South, or Bibb County, or the fact that these people know each other and they’re self-selecting in the way that they share stories.
A refrain I’ve heard from some Southerners who have listened to S-Town is “I know ten John B.s!” In other places, I’ve seen him be called a true American original. This is obviously not a region hurting for eccentric characters, but do you consider this a Southern story? As in, could it only have happened here? Or is it a small town story? Or is it a John B. story?
When you listen to it, you bring a certain kind of something to the way you’re listening because it’s the South, and because there’s a tradition of the types of stories that are told about the South, for good and for ill. In that way, it can’t help but be a Southern story. But I don’t think the bones of the story couldn’t happen elsewhere.
Obviously, John B. was one of a kind. But I completely get that he seems familiar to people, and I’m glad. I expected that people would be like, Oh yeah, we have someone kind of like John B. in my town. We’ve gotten a lot of emails from people saying as much. That’s how all good stories are. They’re about someone very specific, and in that is the universal.
Part of your job was not just to report but to edit—to put this story together. And you tell it largely chronologically. As in, we’re getting to know people and their motivations in the same order as you did. Many have compared S-Town to a novel, but the difference, obviously, is that these people are real. And there might be consequences for them when you go a few chapters before revealing that they may not be as good, or as bad, as the listener initially might think. How did you approach striking that balance?
That was why we released everything at once—so that we wouldn’t be put in a position where a week would be going by between chapters, and you’d have these feelings about someone. You can immediately move on, and take it in, like a book—in the same way a book might let you think one thing in one chapter, but fifty pages later, you learn something else.
I think laying it out that way, like with the cousins, Rita and Charlie, and their dispute with [McLemore’s son-figure] Tyler [Goodson], it taught me something about the way we judge people, and the way conflicts start, and the way we get into intractable conflicts, both individually and politically, even.
I thought that was a worthwhile thing to document as it happened—to let you feel one thing, and then to feel the feeling of the judgment you jumped to, and the way we judge people so quickly. To feel whiplashed by that. I felt like it taught me something about humans and the world.
The podcast was an interesting study of how one situation with a set of facts could be perceived in so many ways.
I didn’t think about this at the time—I was not that smart—but afterward, it occurred to me that that is one of the major themes in one of the most famous Southern books ever, To Kill a Mockingbird. You have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand them. That’s Atticus Finch’s whole M.O.
Were there any other pieces of Southern lit that inspired you?
There were the stories John gave me, that I mention in the story. A Rose for Emily [by William Faulkner], and a French short story. And Shirley Jackson’s The Renegade, that feels Southern. I did go on a Flannery O’Connor kick. I hadn’t read any of her novels, so I read Wise Blood. It was more for fun, but it was certainly inspiring. In Wise Blood, she kind of takes a left turn at the end, and ends with this character, who hasn’t been a main character, who just pops up in the very last quarter of the book. I was like, Oh, that’s kind of cool. Maybe I’ll do something like that.
I also read a book by Harry Crews, A Feast of Snakes, which was hard for me, because I hate snakes, and there are so many snakes in that book. But just the darkness and depravity of that book lodged itself in my head a little bit.
A big one was Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. There’s this certain move that Jones does in his writing, where he will be talking about a character, and will jump forward in time, in the midst of telling the current narrative. So I re-read the first fifty to a hundred pages, and underlined every time he did that. I had that in mind as I was writing this nonfiction [podcast]. So there are times in the piece when we jump forward in time, which you can do when you report something for two or three years, because you know the future.
How did you approach that foreshadowing, knowing there were going to be some mysteries about John’s life and death that you would ultimately not be able to answer?
You want to give the right amount of weight to things. You’re trying to transmit, without saying it, the relative importance. We want certain elements of the story to be in their proper size within the cosmology of the story. So it’s a matter of proportion. I’m trying to transmit to you how important this is, or not.
When people have asked you about some of these mysteries, such as the buried treasure, you’ve said, “I’ve put in everything that I can put in!”
I see a lot of people saying, We want more! Or a sequel. I want you to be saying, Give me more. Storytelling is an exercise, in my mind, in frustrating people. That’s what you do when you’re reading a story. You’re frustrated that you don’t know the ending. If, at the end, you want to know more, and you feel like there’s stuff you don’t know, that, to me, is way better than if you feel a little tired of the story, or bored at points.
A few of the people involved, including Bubba, the tattoo artist, and Tyler and his family, have said they felt like the story was fair. Have you heard from others?
I’ve heard from basically everybody. First of all, that’s the highest compliment those guys could pay me, because we worked really hard to make things fair. Because you are dealing with real people. And that’s part of what takes so long, putting in the time to make sure you know enough to feel that you can be fair. That’s so much of the work of what we did, and the sweat that we put in, so that means a lot. That’s largely the response we’ve gotten from people, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve been in touch with Rita, and she and her husband finally got to go on a retirement vacation, so I’m happy for them. And yes, she thought we did a really nice job.
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