At the apex of the current podcast rankings is a bizarrely fascinating narrative winding its way back in time through Southern inhospitality, decrepit Dixie dreams, and forlorn frustration.
The story of John B. McLemore unfolds around the sleepy town of Woodstock, Alabama, sandwiched between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.
For the average listener in a place far removed from the rural Alabama hamlet where the drama occurs, the accents peppering this audio-only universe of S-Town are strikingly similar to one particular voice that has increasingly graced the national airwaves: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Bibb County part of Woodstock sits 60 miles north of Selma, where Sessions was born, two decades before McLemore, a reclusive, brilliant, and queer liberal, came into this world.
While the name of the show evidently stands for “Shit-Town,” perhaps another helpful way to understand the environs would be to call it “Sessions Town” ― a white, conservative locale where social mores remain unchanged since the 1950s and Old South traditions predominate.
Judging by five major issues, the nation’s top cop seems to have derived much of his worldview from the antiquated sense of justice that pervades in Woodstock.
The initial premise of S-Town hinges on McLemore’s erroneous explanation of a fight among a group of youths. McLemore alleges a homicide cover-up by the alleged perpetrator’s family, who own a timber business called K3 Lumber. Though the name supposedly stands for KyKenKee — the combined nicknames of the owner’s three sons — there is a not-so-subtle reference to the main historical purveyor of racial animosity.
Although Attorney General Sessions is said to have broken the back of the KKK, he also reportedly didn’t oppose them until he found out they smoked marijuana.
In the 1980s, Sessions’ career advancement was hampered by his record of racist sentiment, but his blunt intolerance didn’t stop him from recently becoming the chief law enforcement official in Donald Trump’s administration.
Spoiler alert: rather than McLemore helping the media and police to uncover wrongdoing by a child of a White Power advocate, ironically the K3 proprietor ends up acquiring the McLemore family property after John’s demise.
Suffice it to say that Woodstock is not a wellspring for civil rights progress, and Sessions would likely be proud of the racial demographics in that part of the state.
McLemore, the protagonist, defines himself as a “semi-homosexual.” His efforts to cultivate a long-term romantic relationship are spurned by his failed attempts at courtship.
Sessions would not be one to condone McLemore’s seduction of a male worker on a road construction crew. Nor would he look fondly upon the main character’s earnest but unsuccessful advances over the years on two straight men close to him, Tyler Goodson and Michael Fuller.
“There’s no telling how many closet cases there are in this town,” says McLemore, an eccentric genius and horologist, to host Brian Reed, highlighting the repressed sexuality that seems to typify the rural Alabama landscape.
Perhaps McLemore’s twang sounds more like the stereotypically gay diction used by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), but to be sure, it’s Sessions who’s not a friend of same-sex marriage and who has opposed legislation that would make firing discrimination against LGBT people illegal.
But it’s not just stances on racial and cultural issues that inform Sessions’ ideology; there’s a range of other political views that would make him at home in Woodstock.
Right to bear arms, torture
One of the stranger tales contained within the masterfully poetic podcast emerges from McLemore’s relationship with Tyler, his close friend, employee, and property caretaker.
Tyler recounts how he planned to get his grandfather’s two stolen guns back from the electrical contractor who robbed them. His plan was to use “hedge clipper snips” to cut off the fellow’s fingers one by one, to expedite the return of the firearms. Is this vigilante justice à la ISIS?
On the one hand, we learn about the role of guns in creating a sense of safety and security for individuals who might need to mete out justice on their own. But beyond that, the stolen guns incident explains how much machismo and pride are wrapped up in the familial inheritance of weaponry.
The value for Tyler goes way beyond the capacity to provide protection for those around him. The items hold even more symbolic worth in this sociocultural milieu.
It goes without saying that Jeff Sessions is an aggressive advocate for the Second Amendment enshrining Americans’ right to own guns. But it’s also true that he’s expressed support for expanded use of torture to protect U.S. interests.
McLemore is obsessed with the environmental degradation associated with climate change more than any other external factor contributing to his malaise and increasing anger.
“I’m not the most cheerful person,” says McLemore. “I spend most of my spare time now either studying energy or climate change, and it’s not looking good...when the whole goddamn Arctic summer sea ice is going to be gone.”
The S-Town host contextualizes McLemore’s multitude of gripes by saying “they’re not a bunch of disparate things.”
“His ‘Shit-Town’ is part of Bibb County, which is part of Alabama, which is part of the United States, which is part of the earth, which is experiencing climate change, which no one is doing anything about. It maddens John. The whole world is giving a collective shrug of its shoulders.”
Regardless, the man now responsible for enforcing environmental laws is not a fan of regulations to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. He has referred to arguments like McLemore’s as “deliberate misinformation.”
Oddly, one of the main factors behind McLemore’s decline is his own chemical and physiological catastrophe unrelated to global warming.
One of the all-pervasive themes in S-Town is how the police are corrupt, generally because they’re friends with powerful interests in the community or with alleged crime suspects themselves.
Our Attorney General might say that law enforcement should have good relations with all groups and citizens, assuming no one interferes with officers maintaining law and order.
As S-Town comes to a close, we are left with the impression that rural white folk often feel as aggrieved by the police as urban African-Americans do. But Sessions probably won’t be pressed to re-negotiate consent decrees aimed to reform any such police forces.
Human drama in the poignant podcast is ultimately reduced to a legal battle over McLemore’s possessions, and the role of the police hardly seems objective or driven by a higher code of morality.
McLemore perhaps best summarizes his lack of faith in the American people and our battered social contract, even inserting a Russian reference into a wide-ranging rant that would make Sessions squirm:
“We ain’t nothing but a nation of...whiny, fat, flabby, out-of-shape, Facebook-looking, damn twerk-fest, peeking out the window, slipping around, listening on the cellphones, and spying in the peephole...Mr. Putin, please, show some f***ing mercy. I mean, come on, drop a f***ing bomb, won’t you?”