This story contains spoilers about S-Town.
Ann Stone, the Woodstock, Alabama, town librarian, rarely misses church. Yet a few weeks ago, on a fluke, she did. Driving to work the next day, Stone, who taught grade school in Woodstock for 30 years before switching professions, caught an NPR interview featuring someone discussing Alabama. Her ears perked up. Then she heard a voice she recognized but couldn’t place. By the time she pulled into the gravel parking lot of the library, she heard the producer say something about Bibb County, where Woodstock is located.
“I rushed inside to Google it,” she recalls. She discovered the voice belonged to John B. McLemore, who lived in Woodstock until he committed suicide two years ago. “I called a friend of mine, who I go to church with, about it,” says Stone. “And she said, ‘Oh you’re talking about Shit Town.’” Knowing that her friend didn’t listen to NPR, Stone asked how she knew. Her friend told her, “They were talking about it at church yesterday.”
“Remind me never to miss church again,” Stone says with a rueful grin.
It’s been three weeks since the release of Shit Town (marketed as S-Town) a seven-part podcast hosted by This American Life senior producer Brian Reed, and during that time the audio program has been downloaded more than 20 million times, becoming a bona fide podcast blockbuster. The show begins as an investigation of a supposed murder cover-up in the small Alabama town, but evolves into a portrait of McLemore — the town eccentric, who had reached out to Reed to investigate the murder case — and a meditation on time, pain, and the claustrophobia of small-town southern life. Shit Town was immediately celebrated for its novelistic approach to nonfiction storytelling and its nuanced treatment of the characters and community, but in Woodstock, many residents are fidgeting under the scrutiny the viral hit has brought to the town. “I felt like he did a fair job,” Stone says of Reed’s storytelling. “But it’s not the Woodstock that I know.”
I’m sitting with Stone in the reading room of the library, across a circulation desk that doubles as a pass-through kitchen, as she recalls how she quickly downloaded all seven episodes and stayed up until 1 a.m. to listen while compulsively texting a friend. Reed explained in an interview with Vulture that he tried to remain mindful of how Woodstuck was depicted in the podcast, though he acknowledged that complete accuracy in such a situation is hard to achieve. To find out how the show was being received by residents, I spent a few days in town talking to locals — a few featured on the show, though most not — which is how I came to meet Stone. “In certain ways it was like a train wreck,” she says. “It wasn’t that damaging, but it was just like: ‘I’ve got to listen to the next episode, I’ve got to listen to the next episode.’ ” She bristles at John B.’s characterization of her town, worrying it might lead others, especially those not from the region, to see her home as a “Shit Town.” She notes, “We’re particularly sensitive to that in the South.”
During my time in Woodstock, several common reactions to Shit Town emerged. There’s a defensiveness, mostly among older generations, that seems to have as much to do with the story itself as it does with the anticipated reception, which is that the show will confirm what everyone already thinks about Alabama. Younger folks in town seem more amused by it, grateful that something interesting has finally happened in their sleepy town. Many locals take exception on behalf of the Burts, a prominent family wrongly accused by John B. of being part of a murder and cover-up, who employ hundreds in Bibb County.
Then there were plenty of others who don’t want to discuss it at all. Countless people declined my invitation to talk, telling me that though they certainly have opinions on the story, they know too many people involved to go on record. Some won’t even discuss it away from journalists. One afternoon I sat in on a weekly art class that takes place in town, and between scoldings for “drawing like an engineer,” I found myself in the strange position of explaining who John B. was to several students who live in Woodstock. Then I learned that the woman sitting next to me had listened to the show and knew nearly everyone involved — she just didn’t want to talk about it, with me or her fellow students.
Skepticism about the show and its treatment of their southern town — replete with trailer parks, tattoos, “a local Boo Radley,” and unseemly views on race and sexuality — makes sense. Often the region exists in the national consciousness as a paradox: simultaneously the butt of backwater jokes and the barometer of authentic blue-collar identity, at once reviled and fetishized. As Joan Didion puts it in the recently released South and West, the region seemed “the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy” in the country. But for all of the region’s nuance beyond that binary, it’s the potential for reductive regional stereotyping that looms large for Stone. “Aren’t there any places that have this kind of story,” she asks, “and it’s not in the South?”
Wendy, a 20-something cashier at the local Foodland who hasn’t listened to the podcast, sums up the sentiment slightly differently: “How many times does the name Alabama come out of somebody’s mouth who’s not from here to say something good?”
One of Wendy’s managers at Foodland, Mary Broadhand, has lived in Woodstock for 50 years. She listened to the podcast with her 17-year-old daughter, and her opinion evolved with each episode. “At first I hated it,” she says. She went to high school with Kendall Burt, the patriarch of the family alleged to have covered up the murder, and thinks “the world of him.” But as the show progressed, debunking the rumor, it grew on her. Her daughter, who hates Woodstock and gets restless here, loved the show, feeling that it fairly captured the town.
“Everybody feels that way when they’re young. I felt that way as a teenager,” says Broadhand. “There’s nothing to do here. The older you get the more you come to like it. Now, I wouldn’t want my kids living anywhere else.”
At the invitation of Don Kimbrel, a man in his 60s I met at the library, I make one of my stops the Woodstock senior center, which shares space with the town hall and the police department. When Kimbrel announces who I am and why I am there, the town clerk, Tiffney McCulley, intercepts me and says I should speak with the mayor instead, since he’s handling all the press and so as not to upset any of the seniors.
A few hours later, I’m back in town hall sitting across a glass-top desk from Mayor Jeff Dodson, who is dismissive of the podcast. He knew McLemore, and had even opened a nursery with him a decade ago. Unable to make much of a profit, the partnership ended in acrimony and a lawsuit by McLemore for restitution of potting-soil expenses. Now Dodson seems once more aggrieved at McLemore. He’s reluctant to even call Shit Town a documentary, instead referring to it as “a really good story.”
“And I like a good story,” he tells me. “But as it goes from one to the next to the next, it loses a little truth.” Dodson’s quarrels pertain to minor moments; the Burts, for one, are family friends of the Dodsons, and in the mayor’s eyes, the disproved murder allegations and the suggestion of a Klan reference in the name of the Burt family business, K3 Lumber, prevent the show from being a genuine piece of nonfiction. Dodson is also quick to deflect any critique of the town, attributing everything to McLemore’s worldview. “I don’t think it was about Woodstock,” he says. “It was about John’s world. It wouldn’t matter geographically where he was at.”
While Dodson tries to play down McLemore’s critiques of Woodstock and his posthumous celebrity — “To try to make a folk hero out of John, an environmentalist,” he says, “that’s a far stretch” — Allan “Bubba” Cresswell is glad more people get to know a more complete version of John B. and not just the “town weirdo ranting about energy.” Bubba, who co-owned the tattoo parlor in Bessemer with Tyler Goodson, appeared in the second episode of the show, and his views on race prompted Reed to preface them with: “At the risk of ruining any surprise, the statement is racist, and nonsensical, replete with multiple uses of a terrible word.”
“He gave me that rib shot, calling me racist, but I’m not worried about it,” Bubba tells me in the kitchen of the tattoo parlor he’s about to open in Woodstock. He’s just painted the door when I arrived. “If I was still in Bessemer, my windows would be busted out,” he says of his parlor in the more diverse city north of Woodstock. “I ain’t worried about it here.”
About a week after Shit Town came out, in advance of the new parlor opening, Bubba posted a picture of McLemore to his business’s Facebook page. It’s of McLemore’s back, covered from shoulder blade to hipbone with the lashes Tyler and Bubba made first with a privet branch, then preserved with a tattoo needle.
“That was hell,” he tells me. When asked what made him want to post it, he continues, “John was ashamed of his tattoos, so I never shared any of the work I did on him. But when I saw the photo I was thinking about all the hours and all the time and all the effort. I said people need to see what was really going on in his mind.” Bubba says the tattoo represented “the pain the world goes through just to host us. … It’s the closest visual you can get to it. John is resting away. Everything’s collapsing, the world is coming to an end. That’s the part I wish people would understand.”
McLemore, whom Bubba considers his “redneck professor,” has rubbed off on the tattoo artist in myriad ways: reading, which he never used to do, subsistence farming, brooding about the nearby depleted coal mines and pine forests “cut raw.” And like McLemore, Bubba can go on a stem-winder, so I end up spending more time than anticipated talking with him at the parlor. It wasn’t until almost dusk that I made it to the bank of the Cahaba River. The blooming season for the Cahaba lily — a flower that grows in the water and looks like an albino starfish photobombing a white buttercup — runs from mid-May to mid-June. When McLemore and Tyler spent Father’s Day at the river the day before McLemore drank cyanide, the season’s bloom was just fading, with the floating midstream meadows of white having mostly reverted back to green fronds. A few weeks from now, the lilies will return to a Woodstock still in the throes of an all-too-public referendum on competing visions of its beauty and shit.
The summer bloom was once Woodstock’s primary tourist attraction. Now, people are Woodstock-bound — “pilgrimages,” as some say on social media — to see the show’s landmarks in person. Ann Stone drives past Green Pond Presbyterian Cemetery, where McLemore is buried, on her commute and sees groups visiting the grave several times a week. Tourists will often stop by the library, asking for directions to McLemore’s hedge maze. “One of the first things I say is ‘you really have to meet the people,’” she says. “John’s view was not a realistic view of Woodstock. There are a lot of good people here, and I wish people would come and visit and get to know us.”
But while Stone is frustrated by the prevailing narrative about Woodstock, other locals are just enjoying the spectacle of Shit Town’s aftermath. Jason Champion, in his late 20s with a bushy beard, didn’t take offense to the podcast, saying, “John wasn’t the only one who felt that way” about Woodstock. He’s standing behind the counter at Vapor Magic, a repurposed trailer selling e-cigarette accessories in a strip of shops near the intersection of Highways 11 and 5 — the main drag in town. More than anything, he feels that the podcast was simply a good yarn. “People seemed entertained by it,” he says, summing up the reaction among his friends who are themselves in their 20s, mainly working retail jobs, and grateful for something to chat about. “I was left with so many questions. They should have a reunion show.”