S-Town podcast is Southern Gothic tale not to be missed
Those who have not listened to “S-Town” have at least heard about it. The podcast is the latest created by the producers of “Serial” and “This American Life.”
All seven, hour-long chapters of the podcast were released on March 28, and listeners around the world downloaded it over 16 million times in the first week.
“S-Town” is a stunningly brilliant podcast. It begins as a simple investigative piece of journalism about a possible murder but soon morphs into a story about love, hate, family ties, bigotry, racism and family inheritance.
In the first episode, listeners hear host Brian Reed learn that a murder might, or might not, have occurred in Bibb County, Alabama from a caller named John B. McLemore, an eccentric antique clock restorer who refers to his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama as “S**t Town.”
After a year of phone conversations with McLemore, Reed decides to travel from New York to the small town of Woodstock to investigate the alleged murder, which, according to McLemore, involved a rich teenager who beat to death another teen. His family owns a lumber yard in Woodstock and, according to McLemore, the whole town participated in a “cover up” because of the teen’s connections.
In order to avoid spoilers, the podcast’s descriptions will stop here, but, suffice it to say, I have been to Bibb County, Alabama, and have no doubt that such a thing could have happened.
“S-Town” is beautifully written, narrated and edited. In one particular scene, McLemore launches into a minutes-long, expletive-filled tirade about the town, its inhabitants, global warming, the failing school system, lazy teenagers and the government as the voice of tenor Luciano Pavarotti crescendos in the background.
In an interview with “Time,” Reed said that “S-Town” was modeled directly on serialized TV shows.
“With ‘S-Town,’ we were really thinking of novels,” Reed is quoted as saying in the interview. “While ‘S-Town’ is completely non-fiction, the story itself had a very novelistic feeling, just in the details of it and the richness of the place. We were trying to make something that feels like a book you can listen to at your leisure. You can put it down in a middle of a chapter, and it kind of wedges itself in your brain as you go about your day. And it freed us up where we didn’t have to do a cliffhanger every time, at the end of every episode.”
Woodstock, like many small, backwoods Southern towns with limited employment and educational possibilities, is full of misanthropic characters. And, to Reed’s credit, “S-Town” paints a picture of its residents and those in McLemore’s life honestly but without prejudice – from his dementia-addled mother and the tattoo-covered young man with three daughters who works for him to the racist tattoo artist who doesn’t mind throwing around the “n word” on the record. Reed spins a yarn that keeps the listener coming back for more.
“S-Town” captivated me from the first few seconds of Episode I, entitled “If you keep your mouth shut, you’ll be surprised what you can learn.”
In 2016, Edison Research discovered that 21 percent of U.S. adults listen to podcasts monthly. That number rose 4 percent over the previous year. The surge in popularity of podcasts may be a signal that as much as we may enjoy a technically brilliant episode of “Game of Thrones,” it’s equally pleasing to listen to a story well told while letting our imaginations fill in the rest. “S-Town” fits that bill and then some.
Download “S-Town” at iTunes or at stownpodcast.org.
Susan Campbell may be reached by email at email@example.com.