The team behind popular podcast “Serial” released a vivid portrait of rural America last week in the form of a new podcast called “S-Town,” short for “Shit Town.” While diving down deep in a sleepy, forgotten town seems pointless, the people and themes of “S-Town” strike a poignancy in America’s divided politics and culture in the present day.
A few years ago, “This American Life” senior producer Brian Reed went down to Woodstock, Ala., to investigate an alleged murder and potential police coverup. While he was there, he found a fascinating, eccentric man named John B. McLemore — and this is where the story really begins.
Town of Characters
The podcast turned into a meditation on McLemore, his “shit town,” and the people who live in (what many residents of coastal cities refer to as) “flyover country.”
McLemore, who spent most of his life in Woodstock in his mother’s house, is portrayed as a man who hates his home and its residents. In his mind, his neighbors refuse to see the bigger picture of what the world has to offer.
He is also unabashedly a product of his home, with a thick Southern drawl and possessing a few habits that he finds deplorable in others. As Reed puts it, “He’d acknowledge that he shouldn’t use the N-word, and then use the N-word.”
According to Reed, Woodstock is 95 percent white, which he says is “the result of many decades of laws and violence and day-to-day racism.” There are a few references to the Ku Klux Klan throughout “S-Town,” including an anecdote Reed tells about a sign on Woodstock’s Main Street in the 1950s that read, “The Klan people of Bibb County welcome you.”
One of Woodstock’s wealthiest families owns the K3 (or KKK) Lumber company. When Reed asks one of the owners, Kendall Burt, about the name, he replies laughing: “I’m assuming you’re one of those left-wingers we upset in the election.”
That is the only overt reference to the 2016 presidential election in “S-Town,” but, as Vulture’s Nicholas Quah put it, everything is set against “a complicated backdrop of extreme poverty, sprawling histories and the psychosocial fallout of carrying out a life in a place lost in time.”
One of the pervasive narratives about why the mainstream media missed President Trump’s national popularity is that it did not understand places like Woodstock, and the circumstances that could lead its residents to see Trump as a potential savior.
This issue has led to more attempts to understand these often forgotten parts of the country, especially by freelance reporter Salena Zito. She coined the “take Trump seriously not literally” phrase, and continues reporting on underrepresented areas, like her recent piece on the decay of the Acela corridor.
Then there are the problematic portrayals of “flyover country” in pop culture, as detailed in a widely shared Cracked article less than two months before Election Day.
“Every TV show is about L.A. or New York, maybe with some Chicago or Baltimore thrown in,” David Wong wrote. “When they did make a show about us, we were jokes — either wide-eyed, naive fluffballs (“Parks And Recreation,” and before that, “Newhart”) or filthy murderous mutants (“True Detective,” and before that, “Deliverance”). You could feel the arrogance from hundreds of miles away.”
“S-Town” is an attempt to rectify this pop culture imbalance, but everything is still filtered through Reed, a New Yorker. Reed at least tries to highlight places like Woodstock without making fun of his characters’ accents or disenfranchisement, which are not laughing matters.
A Silent Majority Suffers
A recent study on “mortality and morbidity in the 21st century” by Princeton University professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that “middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. with a high school diploma or less have experienced increasing midlife mortality since the late 1990s.”
The study suggests that “deaths of despair” — drugs, alcohol or suicide — in white America are “accompanied by a measurable deterioration in economic and social well-being.” Many characters in “S-Town” suffer from depression, alcoholism or drug addiction.
One character, Tyler Goodson, is Reed’s poster child for white male discontent. During one conversation, he details how he feels he would be justified kidnapping a man he thought might have stolen some of his guns and cutting off his fingers with a hedge-clipper until he gives them back.
Reed struggled to realize how Goodson, who has lived a hard life, could feel this was okay. Eventually, he decided that to Goodson, this was the only way justice would ever be served.
According to Vulture’s Quah, it should be noted that at its core, “S-Town” is a “portrait of a man, his complex relationship with his home and the legacy of that dynamic.” But it can also be a viewed as one of the rare examples of media that tries to give a voice to Americans who felt forgotten and, subsequently, became the “silent majority” in the 2016 election.