The Secret Music of S-Town’s John B. McLemore

Every episode of S-Town led to a new twist about the life of John B. McLemore, the charismatic, mercurial focus of the hit podcast. He had his hobbies and obsessions — repairing antique clocks, building a hedge maze, mentoring local kids, getting tattoos and piercings, caring for his dogs, and trying to get to the bottom of a murder that never happened in his “shit town.” In the last few years of his life, he also dabbled in composing and remixing the ambient music of an artist he’d never known.

His songs can be heard on Tor Lundvall Presents: Witness Marks — The Works of John B. McLemore, and the story behind the five-song album is just as mysterious and heartbreaking as everything else on S-Town.

In fall 2012, Lundvall, a New York–based painter and musician, received a note. “I got emails from John just out of the blue,” he says. “The subject was ‘Tor Lundvall’s greatest hits.’ I’m like, ‘What the hell is this?’”

It turns out that John B. had recently gotten a computer and wanted to let Lundvall know about these songs he was trying to upload to YouTube. Some tracks were reworkings of Lundvall’s songs while others were field recordings of the chimes of John B.’s clocks, the bugs, birds, and frogs that surrounded his remote Alabama home, the low din of the air outside, and sometimes simply silence.

They exchanged emails, and John B. eventually sent over CDs of his mixes, with handwritten labels, and included liner notes. He apologized for the quality, and explained that it was recorded just a few days before his father died in 2003. “It should be heard After Midnight,” he said, “in the Late Fall of the year, and, not surprisingly, a Very Long Attention span is a Prerequisite.”

Lundvall was struck by the mixes. “It made a big big impact, especially with the clock chimes, and this long sweeping remix he did of a track from my album The Mist called ‘Dark Spring.’”

The pair kept up their correspondence for about two months. What began as a discussion of art turned more personal. “We discussed his depression and concerns about the future, taking care of his mom and so forth,” says Lundvall. “Pretty much, what I was getting from our communication was that he felt very frustrated and very much alone.”

In April 2017, Lundvall thought about how much he loved John B.’s remixes. “He actually enhanced the sound quality of some of those tracks. I don’t know what he was using [for the recordings] but some actually sounded better.”

So Lundvall looked for his CDs, and then to check John B.’s work was still on YouTube. It was, but when he looked at the comments section, he saw various versions of “rest in peace.” That’s how he found out his old friend was dead, having killed himself by drinking potassium cyanide in June 2015.

After some Googling, he found out about S-Town and asked some of his collaborators at his record label, Dais, if they knew what “an S-Town podcast is,” as he told Red Bull Music Academy. They were practically incredulous that he didn’t know about this hugely popular show, which had premiered a month or so earlier. After Lundvall pieced the story together, he decided to work on releasing Witness Marks, the name of which comes from the podcast. It’s a reference to the scratches and stains found on antique clocks, used to date them and, in a way, help tell their story.

Despite months of communication, Lundvall never heard John B.’s voice until he listened to the podcast, and never knew just how deep his mental-health issues went. He looked up images of the maze and the house — both major plot points in the podcast — and was moved. The buzzing insects and cool winds he’d heard suddenly had a visual sense of place attached to them. “I was pretty stunned when I saw that. There’s just so much more about him I wish I’d known.”

Brian Reed, the host of the podcast, was similarly astonished to hear about the existence of the album. “I’d heard after he died that he was classically trained and that was kind of the extent I knew,” Reed says. “I never really got his music taste that well, but I was listening to it this morning and I was surprised how much I liked it. It is pretty excellent.”

Hearing the music brings back many sensations of visiting John B.’s house for Reed. “I just have this picture of him late at night, tinkering around his workshop,” he says. He also recalls that, in a moment that didn’t make it into S-Town, he showed up one day at the house to find an old friend of John B.’s there. The men had somehow met through a music trade magazine in the ’90s and ended up going to concerts together or listening to albums together at home.

“I think John really liked the people who took the time to pay attention and listen to him,” he says. “That’s the thing that everybody who connected with him in that way shares. I was reminded about that [when] talking to John’s music friend, and that’s the sense I get reading about Tor’s experience, never having met John but having corresponded with him about this real thing, which is music. It reminded me, ‘Yeah, this is what was so cool about the story.’”

Lundvall thought twice about whether releasing this album would be an exploitation of a troubled person, but came to the conclusion that it was John B.’s way of telling his story, a desire to be remembered and to make sure people knew what he knew. Through a lawyer, he’s made sure that the royalties will go to those who stand to inherit John B.’s money (his mother, Mary Grace, is supposedly doing well, according to Reed).

At the end, Lundvall says Witness Marks is a tribute to a friend he never met, who’ll tragically never know that he made an impact on millions of people.

“I just hope this release respected his memory because he was a really special guy,” he says. “I’m just glad other people can hear another side of a pretty incredible personality.”

The Secret Music of S-Town’s John B. McLemore