On Tuesday, March 28, the creators of the critically acclaimed podcast Serial and This American Life released their newest series, S-Town (the “S” stands for a commonly used expletive), a nonfiction investigation into alleged murder and lost treasure in Woodstock, Alabama.
The story is centered around John McLemore, a clockmaker from the town who has grown disillusioned with the people and circumstances — “an undercurrent of depravity” in a “world of proleptic decay and decrepitude” — that has plagued the place he commonly refers to as S—town.
To simply label McLemore as an enigma would be doing him an injustice.
It’s clear he seems to be operating on a different plane; he’s brilliant, thoughtful and darkly funny, while also harboring — as the producer Brian Reed described it — “a virtuosic negativity” in regards to the world around him.
“Right away I knew I had never talked to someone like that before,” said Reed, a longtime producer for This American Life, who spent over three years reporting on this story after being contacted by McLemore asking that he investigate nefarious dealings within the Bibb County Sheriff’s Department and a seemingly unrelated (and unreported) murder.
The son of a prominent lumber baron had been allegedly going around bragging about having murdered someone, and the clockmaker wanted something to be done about it. To McLemore, the outrage people exhibited over the injustices of the world was insufficient, and having a wealthy young man brag about committing murder seemed to locally distill that cruel sense of inequity.
On Monday, over the phone, Reed discussed the process of meeting McLemore, who he says, “opened a portal” between them “by sheer force of will” and how his visits to Woodstock evolved into a captivating tale of depravity and deceit, staged against a backdrop described as an overlooked “Shangri-La”— though McLemore would jokingly describe it as “a prison of [his] own design.”
Weld: In the series you explain how you got a long, raving email about these situations happening in Bibb County. At what point did you decide it was time to look into it?
Brian Reed: It was a slow process. He would email me and then a year went by before I ever got on the phone with him. We tried to get on the phone, but we kept missing each other, and honestly it wasn’t that big of a priority for me. I had other stories going on, and it was [one of those situations], “What if any of this isn’t even real?” About a year later there was actually reporting on a sexual abuse case within the Bibb County Sheriff’s Department, and that made me think, “Alright, maybe I should take another look at this. Maybe there is something going in Bibb County like this guy is telling me about.”
Eventually we did get on the phone, and it was immediately clear that I’ve never talked to anybody like this. His force of personality, and how unfiltered he was, and I don’t know… He was acting like a whistleblower like journalists see. I was just about to get started working on a story with a former employee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York who had secretly recorded actions within the bank that she was dismayed with. And she thought they were in the pocket of Goldman Sachs.
So that’s one kind of whistleblower. Then there’s John, who is whistleblowing on this tiny town in Alabama and sending me emails from the gas station on the corner and little pieces of information he’s been conveniently auditing, as he put it, about things that are going on.
Getting back to the question, what made me go down there, I just liked talking to him. He seemed to want to talk and was so insistent about what a hellhole this place was and how much terrible stuff was happening. And the specific things he was telling me about, even though I couldn’t find anything to back it up from afar, I find that’s often what the best stories are; if you can solve things from your desk what would be the point in reporting? In general I like to have that approach.
Weld: What was your first impression of John McLemore after receiving the first email with all these wild allegations, and how did that change over the course of your correspondence with him?
Reed: I feel like we developed a pretty nice rapport. He wanted someone to talk to, and I was a reporter, and it’s my job to listen to people talk as long as they want to talk. [Laughs] I think that suited a relationship with John. He would definitely go on and on and on and of course had a bit of loneliness in his life. He was just not like anyone else I was talking to or I’ve ever talked to; just the way his brain worked.
It was delightful and shocking and just everything about it — dark and funny. I just enjoyed talking to him. But there was this element of just wondering if this guy was pulling my leg. What was his motivation here in reaching out to me? I was never fully doubting all the time but there were certainly moments where I was wondering what was going on.
Weld: When deciding whether or not to track this story down, were there concerns over how similar serialized narratives — such as the Netflix crime documentary Making a Murderer — are often scrutinized for the accuracy of the storytelling? How did you set out to avoid that?
Reed: I didn’t know what this would be. When I got contacted by John, Serial wasn’t even invented yet. I was just doing my job as a This American Life producer and evaluating it as story for that. He was a listener to This American Life, and he wrote to us.
We kill tons of stories here— like, half the stories, we kill. The mindset was, “If this doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.” But meanwhile there was always something — I don’t know — I’m not bored talking to this guy and don’t know what shape this going to take exactly. And I don’t know exactly if the incidents and corruption he was telling me about, to what extent they are real, but I’m enjoying the journey for sure. And him and this place through his eyes and the people he was introducing me to. I just wasn’t bored.
I’d come back and tell my editor, Julie Snyder, who is the co-producer with me on this — just an incredible, incredible collaborator — I’d come back and tell her about my trip and I’d play her some of my recordings with John, and she was never bored either, and it was kind of like, “We don’t know what this is, so let’s just stay there.”
Weld: What were your expectations of the town John had been describing for a year versus what you encountered during your time in Woodstock?
Reed: I still didn’t know it was a story when I came down, honestly. I just wanted to come down and hear what people would say. I’ve been to Alabama before. I’ve been to small towns throughout the country. If anything I felt like John… in certain ways a lot of the elements he was talking [about] to me sounded very stereotypical,where my knee jerk was to think “Okay, it’s got to be more complicated than that.” He’s been talking about trailer parks and meth and sex offenders, and I’m sure all those things exist, but he was distilling it into this almost amped-up, stereotypical view of small town Alabama.
I was skeptical of that. As a reporter, I know every place is more complicated than the way it appears from afar and more three-dimensional. I wanted to know to what extent what he was saying was the real part of it while having a skepticism about it and keeping an eye open for it. He was feeding S—town.
Weld: There’s a moment in the series when you describe the day you arrived on John’s property. There’s an intricate hedge maze, rows of flowers that go on for hundreds of feet, and a workshop filled with precious clocks. What was going through your head? In the audio, you sound like you were caught completely off-guard.
Reed: It was super special. But you know, it also snuck up on me. Like I said in the story, there was no greeting or anything. It was just like, “Oh, here we are. Wow. This is actually beautiful.”
It’s so disorienting because he speaks so negatively. To have it juxtaposed with this Shangri-La that he’s built was just so fascinating. And it was a lot of me being like, “This is so nice,” and him just calling it a hellhole. It felt really special to me but it was also — I hadn’t spent much time in Alabama — maybe thinking this is what houses were like in Alabama. I’ve since learned that people who have lived there their whole lives will drive up his driveway and say they’ve never seen anything like it before. This is a singular place in the world where he lives.
Weld: A recurring theme of the story is the sense of hopelessness experienced by the people living in the small town. While at the same time the interactions you captured are layered with idioms and little bits of wisdom that seem to make up what you describe as the “F—-it philosophy.” People you encountered seemed to be game for anything, such as candidly talking about a murder they heard their friend bragging about. How did that general philosophy lend itself to the story and in what ways did you try and explore that?
Reed: It really did strike me. It’s one of my main takeaways. Look, it’s not just hopelessness. I do think that’s part of it, the “f—it philosophy.” I feel like, yes, there is an element of feeling beaten down and giving in to whatever happens. That’s certainly part of it. But there is also an element that I sort of admire in that philosophy of just not getting too hung up on things and not letting your anxieties get in the way of trying something new or talking to someone new. Just like, “I don’t care. Whatever. Let’s try it.” I admire it. I think it’s refreshing.
Hanging out with John and Tyler [another resident of Woodstock] and people, there is a feeling — and I’m not trying to romanticize it — like you’re off the grid. Like it doesn’t matter what we do out here. There is plenty of stuff we have to deal with and plenty of life’s responsibilities and plenty of things that are harder, and that’s not to erase any of that.
It’s not just a symptom of hardship. I think it’s also something that more people could try and incorporate into their lives. I know I’ve tried to. As a reporter it was super great because I feel like that’s the attitude a lot of people had with me when I’ve been in other situations when I have a microphone and they’re wondering who I am. I didn’t have that problem there. It was just like, “ah f— it, let him come along. Whatever.” It really was true. People were very open and unfiltered. I think people got a kick out of me being there in a lot of cases. That whole dynamic was weird and enjoyable for me as a reporter.
To hear the entire series, subscribe now to the S-Town feed via Apple Podcasts or other podcast apps.