When I started to preview the first episode of S-Town, I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to listen to the show’s host—Brian Reed—talk about his trek to Alabama to dissect the life and times of a certain clock restorer called John B. McLemore. I didn’t want to stomach another story of crime and grime, of Google Mapping, of interviews with county clerks and excursions into the South. And I’m from the South.
But, I pushed forward past my reluctance, and began to see the reality: S-Town isn't just about a man or the town he inhabited. It is an intense tale about the detours and dead ends that disinformation beget. It's an ode to investigative reporting. And, if it doesn't stop you in your tracks, I don't know what kind of audio will. Cause, let's be real: S-Town is freaking awesome.
Let this be known: this is an episode that includes a lot of technical information about clocks and how they tick and tock. Don't let that fool you. This is a tale of the human soul and the things that slowly tear it apart.
Line of note: “You often can't tell what's been done to a clock over hundreds of years.”
Is the social architecture underlying every small town in America unique in its own way? Perhaps accidentally, Brian Reed makes this case. He's no cop. But who is he? And what in the world is a New Yorker doing in the Deep South? He has to put a sliver of his life on a platter for all the people he encounters in this small Alabama town. But is it the same sliver each time? No. Not at all. And therein lies the beauty of Brian Reed's journey: he's a Yankee, who knows or is trying to get to know John B. McLemore.
Line of note: “One day Tyler will tell me that he often wakes up in the morning, in a puddle of sweat, having dreamt in the night of killing his dad.”
John is gone. I'm not going to give you all the details. Not yet, at least. I don't need to. This is the first episode of S-Town that I loved unconditionally. Brian—the investigative reporter at the heart of this audio odyssey—gives us the details and a sliver of his soul, while coming to terms with the death of a friend, a person who emailed him day in, day out about all of society's flaws and fickleness. How do we chart a life? How do we make sense of the passage of Time with a capital “T” when it collides with technology and death?
Line of note: “John prefaced it by saying that he was inspired to send it after listening to our cop episodes. And then the bullet points start. Ninety-nine percent of rhinos gone since 1914. Ninety percent of big ocean fish gone since 1950. Fifty percent of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985…” (This is an incomplete excerpt of John B. McLemore's full email, which was originally titled “Collapse List.”)
What happens when a person dies? What becomes of their things? And what if that person might have a ton of gold hidden somewhere? This episode does feel like an audio version of a treasure map, except there's no map in sight. That's left to us and more importantly, to master cartographer and podcaster, Brian Reed. I almost feel for Tyler, the friend-possible-romantic-partner-definite-gold-digger. But do I? I'm not a criminal, and Tyler's activity is not something I would not condone. I mean, trespassing is trespassing, right? You tell me.
Line of note: “Even though Tyler's not supposed to, he's been going over to the property.”
This episode might as well have been titled “Tyler v. Rita,” or “Families and Friends: It's Complicated,” or “Where In The World Is John's Gold: You Tell Me.” I'd be very happy just coming up with title after title for all of these episodes for no pay, because it's mental exercise. There's so much jammed into each hour, and this one's no different. Brian finally gets Rita, John's cousin, to speak on record about her side of the story. It's a deep dive into the seamy underbelly of police activity. And I have to admit—it's an unexpected detour that the producers of S-Town give us—this magical moment, where it becomes apparent that there are not just two sides to this story. Figuring out John's life (and the location of his gold) requires time, energy, sanity, and commitment to the cause. But, what is the cause?
This is the reoccurring question that haunts me, as I listen and then rewind. What is Brian trying to do? Get a sense of John's life? Find the damn gold that may or may not exist? Uncover police corruption that may or may not be tied to his death? I have questions. So many questions. But, I don't care. I don't need all the answers now. But jeez, I'm so hooked. I just want Rita to tell Brian about all of her conversations with the police, and I still don't know if I even like Rita.
Line of note: “You would've given the nipple rings to Mary Grace?”
Who did John love? What did he believe? What does it take to understand a person? Brian Reed weaves this web and slowly reveals the ways in which he probed the relationships John had. It's hard not to feel for John and to feel for Brian, who interviews the panoply of people—good, bad, ugly, or just off the charts complicated—who crossed paths with John at one point or the other. And that's the beauty of this episode: Brian becomes this love cartographer, tracking and tracing the things that John felt and the relationships he never had. It's lovely, inspiring really. It almost makes you forget the trials and tribulations of Tinder. This episode is a gem, because it's all about organic friendship. And Brian, for better or worse, becomes the glue that brings all of John's scattered friends together. What I love about this episode, like all the others, is that Brian doesn't hide the fact that S-town has taken work to decipher. Hours. Weeks. Months. Labor upon labor. And we—the listeners—we just get to sit back and listen to these 46 minutes of glistening narrative.
Line of note: “I left my visit with that man, more than a year after John killed himself, feeling lots of things, but mostly feeling like, 'Ugh, is that what passed for love in John's life?' “
Brian Reed tracks down the people and places, who made John, John. It's intimate—almost like sneaking a peek at someone's genetic makeup, like putting the legacy of a single man under a microscope. As a listener, I often had to stop the podcast, hit pause and reflect on what it means to make a podcast about a man who is no more. And that's when it hit me: Brian Reed—this masterful storyteller—wields a world of power. He has emailed, phoned, tracked down people upon people upon people—from lawyers to cousins to ex-friends—to make sense of the things that made John B. McLemore tick and tock. I am kicking myself for doubting the power of this podcaster. And I can't help but go back to Chapter 1, because now I see the skeleton of the narrative that I initially missed. I was too busy trying to outthink, to overanalyze the damn murder mystery that ultimately hardly mattered at all.
Line of note: “Jeff was pacing angrily around John, as John spouted the Latin names of plants at him, as a way to piss him off.”
Editor's note: Regular readers of the Pod People will notice that this week's version deviated from our standard format of reviewing multiple podcasts, but with seemingly the entire world waiting for S-Town with baited breath, we felt it appropriate to devote an entire column to it. Next week we will resume our mission to highlight the best and brightest from a wide array of podcasts. For new (or old!) readers of this space, please don't hesitate to reach out to us with suggestions or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or DM our resident podcast expert, Muira McCammon on Twitter. Our mission here is to give podcasts the coverage that they deserve, and with so many to choose from, we need your help. Before we go, Muira has a few updates from around the podcast world to share with you.
Do you have a story about the uncomfortable parts of becoming an adult? Megan Tan, the incredible and insightful host of Millennial is looking for stories—your stories to be more precise. If you have an anecdote, a tale of woe or joy, a lesson learned, a question unanswered, something that is weighing on you, it could be featured on Millennial. Go ahead! Send your pitch to Megan at stories at millennialpodcast dot org.
Here are some items to keep in mind as you craft your pitch:
1) Who are the people involved in the story?
2) What are the events/turning points?
3) What's at stake?
4) What question(s) is this story seeking to answer?
5) What is the universal theme/topic?
6) What is the tone?
7) What tape has been collected or will be collected?
8) How does it illustrate change?
9) Why is this a Millennial story?
10) How would the host Megan relate to the story?
Dates on the Docket
April 9: WNYC’s 12-episode series tackling LGBTQ issues, “Nancy,” will drop. I’m off the charts excited about it.
Raised on a strict diet of NPR and C-SPAN, Muira McCammon is a war crimes researcher by day and a podcast reviewer for Paste Magazine by night. She can be found on Twitter @muira_mccammon or walking about the woods of western Massachusetts. Her writing has previously appeared in Slate, Waypoint by VICE, Atlas Obscura, the Massachusetts Review, and other publications.