S. Town – the podcast we didn’t have a “need to know” for
February 24, 2021
A protagonist by the name of John B. McLemore contacts journalist Brian Reed via email, speaking on how he despises his town of Woodstock, Alabama. McLemore calls it shit town, imploring Reed to investigate the murder of David Nichols, who was allegedly maimed to death by a guy by the name of Kabraham Burt.
Quick warning, this article is littered with spoilers.
Over the course of a few months, McLemore continued to email Reed, call him, and continue to intrigue the idea of Reed making his way down to Woodstock to investigate the crimes. McLemore was an odd character – staying home on his estate, taking care of his deeply demented mother, fixing old clocks, and caring for loads of stray dogs, titling himself “the local humane society.” Other than that, he was your typical run-of-the-mill redneck, despising the LGBTQ+ community, tattoos, and attempting to uphold some level of traditionalism, but underneath the facade was covered in tattoos, scarcely defined himself as a celibate gay, and was deeply concerned with the environment – an intellectual, if you will.
The podcast begins by narrations but slowly goes into the typical phone call audio-only interviews that podcasts are notoriously known for, but for this investigation – the phone calls served a deeper purpose – framing what the mentality of the town would be when Reed ultimately went there to investigate. The brash, off-the-wall southern twang of McLemore’s voice set the stage for what would be an expectedly racist, southern, traditionalism-focused town that is living more in the 1930s rather than the 2010s. However, through the numerous phone calls, and eventually in-person conversations, McLemore’s eccentricness is brought to the forefront through how he verbally conducts himself.
Our first meeting with McLemore is at his home, off of a wooded road, on what was later to be described as “a shit ton of land,” and “a goldmine.” Over only audio, it was clear McLemore was all over the place – his scrambling, in and out voice, inability to answer questions, scattered brain, quick-witted and jumpy tone came through to define all that seemed to be a bitter middle-aged man, that for lack of better words, was white trash. But what we later learned is that he was more than what the audio made him out to be.
However, even though his first few moments with Reed were jumpy and all over the place, Reed was also able to bring him back, and hone in on certain things – pick his brain, and discover ways to narrow in his focus. These things included his perennial hatred of what current politicians are doing for the climate, his intrigue in fixing old clocks, and the labyrinth – a climate-adjusted maze with 64 different solutions, sending him into an Eisteinian rant on the physics of the earth. McLemore, as we discovered through Reed’s strategic placement of his soundbites, was an onion – the layers to his personality seemed endless, but we later found out they were finite.
As Reed progressed into his investigation, each episode was cut to a point where the suspense of what would happen next was too much to bear – causing curiosity to beseech you to listen to another. Reed cut to the chase in the beginning of each episode, thankfully – adding a close to the previous hanger. What was most interesting about this whole podcast is that I want to consider it a documentary – with the voices of Reed, mixed in with phone calls, strategic interviews with townies (and oftentimes on their terms and in their space with their background noise) Reed set the stage for each episode in the beginning, and allowed the listener’s visual mind to catch up.
Oftentimes he lacked to fully describe an individual, but described them enough to a point that the listener could fill in the blanks – a tantalizing strategic move to stimulate the imagination, captivating his listeners throughout. After about an episode and a half, Reed continues on his haphazard and half-assed investigation into the murder, since McLemore, as caught by audio, became dicey and brush-offish with his demeanor. By using these soundbites the audience is able to feel annoyance for Reed, and feel it themselves, noting that there is evident frustration, as well as a slight captivation in Reed to get to the bottom of it.
Once Reed confirmed that the murder seemed fabricated, he went to Burt, the suspected murderer, to hear that it was fabricated. Hearing the disgust and let down in McLemore’s voice only alluded to his ultimate derailment. When someone who is so consumed in hatred and is fueled by any bit of information that causes him rage, finding that something he could grasp onto was fabricated, you could hear his sanity crack.
The turning point in this documentary – and a shock, was when McLemore killed himself by drinking potassium cyanide – a chemical that only takes a teaspoon to kill someone in less than five minutes. Tyler Goodson, McLemore’s “farmhand” and son-like figure had apparently been in an argument with McLemore just prior to the incident, and for McLemore, it was not the first time he had thought about suicide. Skylar Goodson, wife to Jake Goodson, Tyler’s brother, was the one to break it to Reed over the phone – the soundbite catches the chilling, and saddening moment that Reed came to terms with it, littering the moment with long pauses, sobs, and repeat questions to Goodson. It was the only time that this raw emotion was not spliced in or out of the podcast, shocking listeners to their seats, and taking them along for the emotional rollercoaster that was about to unfold.
The town clerk, Faye Gamble, was a close friend of McLemore’s – as Reed later interviewed her, she was on the phone with McLemore as he committed suicide. She was used to his suicide threats, so explained she took the liberty of talking him down from it, but it didn’t work. He drank potassium cyanide while on the phone with her, and she had to listen to him scream in agony about it burning, eventually hearing the thud of him hitting the porch. Equal to the phone call with Ms. Goodson, Reed left the soundbites unspliced, leaving in the discomfort of the pauses, misspoken words, sighs and sniffles, making the listener just as upset as the other. These moments, chilling as they were, contributed to the apex of the storyline, though we all fell smack onto the ground, restarting for a new investigation into McLemore’s life.
The story itself, though beginning broad and brash with soundbites of McLemore peeing into his kitchen sink while being interviewed, and turning cold and lonely when our main character ultimately submitted himself to his internal pain, delivers a closer look into two main themes: the intimacy of one’s psyche and the ethics of diving into someones deeply personal past, uncovering things they purposefully held back, and broadcasting it to the larger audience.
McLemore was fronting as a racist southerner – but his identity was truly an enraged environmentalist, with a longing for the stars and a deeply repressed queer identity, one who had struggles with personal relationships his entire life, and continued to express disgust in his hesitation to leave shit town behind. Though the story was nothing like breaking news, it truly shows us some literature into mental health repression, as well as media ethics itself – McLemore lived a life full of bitterness and rage due to his unacknowledged mental health, and now, after dying, the whole world got to know – Reed did an amazing job crafting the delivery of the story, but just think of that: did we really have a need to know?