When Brian Reed, former producer of This American Life, first started getting fan emails from a John B. McLemore in small town Alabama, he could never have imagined the rabbit hole he was readying to go down. At first, it was the intriguing and incomprehensible acts that John B., as he preferred to be called, detailed about his town that drew Reed to not immediately trash these emails. Throughout his correspondence to Reed, John B. wrote all about how the sheriff’s department was covering up a murder in his area, which he often referred to as s_ _ _ town, causing Reed to sit up and pay attention. Once Reed actually phoned John B., he was instantly drawn to the man’s quirkiness and brilliance that quickly oozed out from under a thick southern accent (think Zach Galifinakis’ character in the movie Campaign with Will Ferrell…seriously…to a “T”). It wasn’t long until Reed had to make his way down to meet his avid fan in the flesh.
S-Town takes us on Reed’s journey through the backwoods and, at times, the shifty underworld that few Americans, unless they live or have lived in a town that’s similar, will even believe exists. Interviews are intermingled with Reed’s commentary and taped calls between he and John B. making it feel as if you’re ping ponging back and forth between listening to an episode of Law and Order and COPS. Like Reed, you are befuddled at each twist that surfaces once he starts delving into his informant’s stories.
With his eery knowledge of science, antique clocks, his eccentric maze that sprawls over acre after acre along with his twenty dogs he cares for, indeed, John B. is the find of a lifetime for any reporter. He is by no means an easy interview in that he is moody and each conversation unearths extreme contradictions between what he says and who he actually is. By the time you’re into episode three, you’ll be so taken with John B. that you won’t care if any of what he’s claimed is true. He, himself, is worth the listen.
Like it’s creator, you’ll be sucked into S-Town based on John B.’s outlandish claims, but also like it’s creator, you’ll stay to find out more about John B. the man and the myth and how his life pans out. Without spoiling it, I will tell you that none of it will end up like you think it will, and though it leans toward drama rather than mystery towards the end, it is one of the most satisfying podcasts you’ll experience.