I’ve never had a great relationship with long car rides. As a kid I tried to pass the time with a book, but I’d get car sick after about an hour or two and spend the rest of the drive tormented by nausea and boredom. I’m still not a fan of long drives especially if I’m by myself. Spotify is great, but it can only keep boredom away for about 3 hours.
Last weekend I faced a solo 12 total hours driving to and from Florida for a bachelorette weekend. I knew the trip would be 150% worth it, but I was dreading the process of getting there. Planning for my battle against boredom, I downloaded an audiobook. I was armed, prepared, and a little bit smug. Not only would the trip be tolerable, but I might actually enjoy it.
The audiobook featured a narrator with such an extremely thick and unbearably fake Southern accent that I couldn’t stand to listen to it for more than about 10 minutes.
Which meant that for seven hours I felt mostly like this:
In order to get back to Mississippi a relatively sane person, I needed a new plan. Instead of downloading another randomly selected audiobook and leaving my drive up to fate, I settled on a podcast recommended by my Dad called S-Town. Ironically, the podcast also featured extremely thick Southern accents; however, this time the accents were real (and not annoying).
S-Town is seven episodes long with each episode lasting about an hour. It starts when producer Brian Reed (American Life & Serial) receives an email with the subject line: “John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama.” In that first email and follow up conversations, John talks manically to Brian about the corruption in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama and a murder that he believes was covered up because the alleged murderer, Kabrahm Burt, was the son of a prominent businessman. After about a year of chatting on the phone, Brian flies from New York to investigate the alleged crime. They follow several leads, interviewing locals who claim to have heard Kabrahm bragging about the murder, and delve deep into the library archives looking for clues in the paper. Through all of that, the eccentric John B. McLemore rants incessantly about the “proleptic decay and decrepitude” of the town (p.s. I’ll come back to proleptic later) and the destructive forces of global warming.
S-Town is like nothing I’ve ever listened to before and wasn’t at all what I was expecting. For starters, the murder investigation that prompted Brian Reed to first visit Woodstock is wrapped up by the second episode. So what does that leave for the remaining 5 episodes and approximately 5 hours of material? A deeper look at – and an attempt to understand – the complicated and fascinating life and mind of John B. McLemore. As pieces of John’s life start to unfold, you gradually get to know a man who approaches the world armed with unwavering pessimism, intense loyalty, and mystery. Who is this man that designed an elaborate hedge maze in his own backyard, seems to despise the place he is from and most of the people around him, and is rumored to have a hidden fortune that he amassed from repairing antique clocks? And who, if anyone in John’s life, can actually be trusted?
One of John’s many surprises is his incredible intelligence. I felt kind of bad about not knowing what proleptic meant, but Brian admitted that he had to look it up in the dictionary, too. It’s certainly not the only time that John seems to be on a different level than everyone around him. Undercutting the unintelligible rants and curse words that shoot from John’s mouth in nearly every sentence is a mind with vast knowledge on chemistry, trigonometry, classic philosophy, and horology. The man is a rambling, nonsensical genius who is outraged by the most troubling parts of Woodstock, Alabama but unable, or unwilling, to leave it.
To wrap it up: S-Town is absolutely gripping. I still had an hour left in the podcast after I got back to Jackson, and I finished it almost immediately. New revelations about John’s life are what drive the podcast forward, and I was eager to find out which questions would be answered at the end and which questions would remain a mystery. Caution: the content is dark. John is a complex and depressed person, and even though he criticizes his hometown, he is clearly a product of it. Despite that, there is so much going on in the podcast, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by greed, unclear intentions, mental illness, treasure hunts, dependent relationships, mysterious pasts, and the South.
If you’re a first time podcast listener like me, S-Town is a great place to start.