‘S-Town’: Journey to a town that’s real, a story that’s surreal, and life that’s so real, it will take your breath away.



John B. McLemore

Tessa Morton, News Reporter

In truth, it was the radio that did it. I was so sick of the same five songs, and realizing I was singing along to pop tunes I loathed was the last straw. So, it was definitely the radio that convinced me to reluctantly jump on the podcast bandwagon. I had been stubbornly avoiding them. I was convinced it was the dying gasp of talkback radio, a medium I had never enjoyed. Like the Kindle, and audiobooks, my love of the traditional had been keeping me from trying new things. Not wanting to let technology taint the romance of the tangible, I preferred the weight and smell of a paperback even if it was inconvenient. Podcasts had a different lure, however, with increased commute times and long road trips coming up. Also, I had heard about the podcast “Serial” and my curiosity was peaked. I grew up on Patricia Cornwell books, weekly CSI episodes and 48 Hours reruns. Like many of my ilk, I jumped from “Serial”, to “Criminal”, to the wonder that is the “My Favorite Murder” podcast. When I stumbled upon “S-Town” a podcast from the makers of “Serial” and “This American Life”, I thought I had found just another murder miniseries. I was wrong.

This is a podcast that truly affected me. Like a book you can’t put down, or a gut-wrenching song, “S-Town” captured me from beginning to end, and it ended far too soon. In December of last year, I was forced to endure a two-day drive from North Carolina to Illinois. I simply needed something to occupy my time. Instead, I found myself being transported, both literally and figuratively. Crying alone in my car by episode two convinced me this was something I needed to share.

The hardest part of reviewing this is not giving away too much. Countless reviews are out there, and all of them are dotted with spoilers and pictures that show you what your imagination should have had a chance to create all on its own. The beauty of the story is the characters who are entirely fleshed out through their own distinctive accents, verbal mannerisms and the narrator’s descriptive asides. “S-Town” is set up to tell the story of a small town in Bibb County, Ala. where an alleged murder cover-up has taken place. Alleged being the operative word. John B. McLemore sought out Brian Reed, the producer of “This American Life”, through a fan email account. The subject line “John B. McLemore lives in shit town Alabama” caught Reed’s attention, and when McLemore went on to describe a hometown that he loathes, but never leaves, and a murder he believes has been ignored, Reed was drawn in as we all eventually would be.

This story was not what it seemed though, hence my reluctance to say too much. By episode two we are almost disappointed by the pace of the story. Solving the mystery seems to be taking less time than anticipated. This podcast however, is filled with hidden treasures, and is a journey more than a series of unanswered questions. A story about a mysterious murder is suddenly a story about a mysterious town, a mysterious man and ultimately a mysterious life.

I did sign up for a true crime podcast, a la “Serial”, but what I got was something more akin to an extended episode of “This American Life.” I was not upset about it. That said, I do want to let potential listeners know this podcast is not what it originally seems. John B. McLemore wants Brian Reed to tell the story of his home town, and to uncover corruption to reveal the secrets he believes his ‘shitty’ town keeps. Instead we get a story largely shaped by McLemore himself, his peculiarities, mannerisms and contradictions. Reed discovers the secrets in McLemore’s life are the ones that really need to be told. We get to know McLemore partly through the people in his town, a bizarre assortment of characters. I am quickly reminded of George R. R. Martin’s gift for creating characters of such complexity that we can love them, loathe them, respect them and relate to them, for all their flaws, justifications and intentions. “S-town” does not need to invent such complexity, and instead just reveals what is already there. Characters that we judge one minute and defend in the next. The humanity and depth within the show is all a part of its allure.  

We also get to know McLemore through his long monologues, which should really be boring, and yet aren’t. His digressions and quips. His anecdotes and vulgarisms. He is revealed to be a character no one could possibly dream up. McLemore is an antiquarian horologist, an antique clock repairer and a student of time, a genius who is one of the best in the world at what he does. Tucked away in rural Alabama, he has a large property on which he built a giant maze out of hedges and gates that move to create 64 different variations, one of which has no solution. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, Reed described McLemore’s life as “metaphorically convenient.” The introduction to the podcast goes into great depth describing the intricacies and difficulties of clock restoration.

“To make the job even trickier,” Reed says “you often can’t tell what’s been done to a clock over hundreds of years. Maybe there’s damage that was never fixed or fixed badly. Sometimes entire portions of the original clockwork are missing, but you can’t tell for sure…a clock that old doesn’t come with a manual. So instead, the few people left in the world who know how to do this kind of thing rely on what are often called ‘witness marks’ to guide their way…. actual impressions and outlines and discolorations left inside the clock, of pieces that might have once been there.”

The less-than-subtle symbolism is a brilliant, despite cliched, introduction to what Reed spends the next seven episodes embarking on. A restoration of his own. Recreating the story of a life from all the scattered clues that are left behind. Some that belong, and some that don’t. A puzzle with too many pieces, of a picture we cannot deduce.

 Reed continues, “I’m told that fixing an old clock can be maddening. You’re constantly wondering if you have just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere… So, at every moment along the way you have to decide if you are wasting your time, or not.”

Brian Reed spent 3 years of his life exploring the mysteries of ‘S-Town’ and John B. McLemore, and it is clear from his own asides he wondered whether it was worth all the time he put into it. What was he finding? What story was he telling? Who would care to listen? With over 40 million downloads in the first month, the answer was clear. Though it is no antique clock, the story told is beautiful and timeless, and listening to it was an experience I will never forget.

‘S-Town’ is a seven-part series available to listen to or read at stownpodcast.org. You can also listen to it via Apple podcasts, or on Stitcher or Radiopublic if you have an android device.