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An Earful: ‘S-Town’ story is one that must be heard


John B. McLemore lived his entire life in Woodstock, Alabama, a small town smack in the middle of rural America. He preferred to call it “Shittown.”

“S-Town” is the podcast that explores this town and the people who have called it home for generations. Executive producer Brian Reed leaves no stone left unturned and digs through the confusion to see the real Woodstock, Alabama, and the real McLemore.

The story Reed weaves is one of incredible intrigue and unanswered questions, complicated relationships and fascinating details — a story which may have never left that small town of Woodstock or the surrounding Bibb County area if McLemore hadn’t reached out to the team at “This American Life.” 

As a producer for “This American Life,” Reed came across McLemore’s email, and a dialogue began between the two quickly. Soon enough the podcast producer was booking a trip to investigate an alleged murder and its subsequent cover-up in Woodstock.

Three years and countless twists and turns later, “S-Town” was released as a seven-episode documentary podcast about Reed’s investigation into Woodstock, the alleged murder and McLemore himself. It was an immediate hit and broke the 10 million downloads milestone within four days of its release, according to Variety. In comparison, the immensely popular documentary podcast “Serial” took seven weeks to reach such a number.

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“S-Town” is unlike anything the team from “This American Life” has ever created. Although it is like “Serial” in its approach to documentary storytelling, there’s really no mystery to be solved. While there may be a dead body, Reed finds his story not in the investigation of a murder but in the exploration of one man’s life and how it interweaves with all the inhabitants of his little town.

Reed’s reporting ensures there are no clear lines between good and bad, no indications of who should be trusted and who should be kept at a distance, making the unfolding of the story even more evocative.

The plot of “S-Town” entices listeners to download the first episode, but one realizes quickly the popularity of this podcast isn’t only because of its story, but the larger-than-life cast of characters.

McLemore is an endlessly interesting character to examine and is anything but your average Joe. During one of their first telephone conversations, McLemore tells Reed of the hedge maze he’s built as part of his expansive property, complete with gates that can be reoriented to allow for a slightly different maze construction each time.

He’s able to immediately spout off the exact latitude and longitude of the maze for Reed to see an aerial view of it through Google Maps. According to McLemore, there were 64 possible solutions and a single fence orientation that would result in an unsolvable maze. A null set, as Reed dubs it.

McLemore is a horologist, one who studies clocks and their inner workings. Specifically, the man spends his days in the workshop attached to his house studying and fixing antique clocks. Reed talked to several other horologists who knew of McLemore’s work and all agreed that he was among the best in his craft.

This man took in stray dogs he found around his neighborhood, often having upwards of 10 at a time. He never married and took care of his aging mother in the same house he grew up in, known around town as an incredibly intelligent but eccentric person. He constantly discusses the problems plaguing today’s world and his small town, treating issues like the initial murder and coverup he contacts Reed about just as seriously as climate change.

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McLemore is quite larger than life, so much so that at times one forgets they are listening to a documentary podcast. There are no reenactments or scripted lines from interview subjects in “S-Town.” Every conversation is genuine, every sound bite something Reed collected from his countless trips to Alabama and phone calls with the various people he came across.

For some, the reality of the story doesn’t sink in until seeing photographs of McLemore’s maze and interviews with Reed and his subjects.

It feels as if someone has carefully crafted the pieces of this story, plotting out each character’s path and personality, and yet it is all organic, all real. And to think this incredibly true story with these nearly unbelievable characters might have never been told if Reed hadn’t opened an email with the subject line, “John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama.”

Genre: Documentary 

Episodes: 7 

Average Episode Length: 1 hour 

Rating: 4.5/5

Follow Victoria Pereira on Twitter.

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