‘Pretty accurate’: S-Towners are proud to be podcasted except for a few things

Residents are mostly happy with their shit town featured in an explosively popular new podcast, but there are some minor details theyd like to clear up

The Green Pond Grocery serves as a sort of central agora for Woodstock, Alabama. Its where people come to pick up lunch plates, cigarettes and the latest news.

This week the news has focused on S-Town, an explosively popular new podcast set in Woodstock. It made the tiny town famous overnight, in the most literal sense.

Its like a cool novel, with a twist, Amy Hardin told a half-dozen people, who stood in a cluster to hear her report. She works the grocery cash register and hears all. Some in her audience knew the podcast, some didnt. Its also just the ramblings of John Bs mind, she said.

The series purports to feature a murder mystery and a treasure hunt. But underneath it is a finely drawn portrait of an eccentric resident named John B McLemore.

It was downloaded ten million times in just a few hours and has been largely praised by listeners.

In some coastal journalistic circles, producer Brian Reed stands accused of exploiting McLemore and other residents of Woodstock, like Gulliver descended among the Yahoos.

But if you come here, to Woodstock, youll hear people laugh at the idea: John B McLemore was a nut, they say, but he probably had a sharper mind than any of the shows producers. He knew what he was about.

What does bother people here is not the portrait of them as a violent, sadomasochistic, racist, feral people.

Seemed like a pretty accurate portrayal, said Woodstockian Clark Alexander, as he came in to pay for gas at the grocery.

No, its things like Reeds geographical looseness when it comes to differentiating among the towns of Bibb County. Nobody here wants to be confused with the philistines who populate Centreville or Bessemer.

Amy Hardin, who works the register at Green Pond Grocery. Photograph: Matthew Teague for the Guardian

But heres the thing: no collection of humans has ever cared less what the wider world thinks of their town, which was dubbed by McLemore as shit town in the podcast. Even now theyre having T-shirts printed that read, Shit Towns finest, and Wheres the gold?

I dont think its a shit town. I like my town, said Justin Hardin. His name wont be familiar, because his appearance on the podcast was anonymous. He showed up in a scene at the Black Sheep tattoo parlor, where he greeted the world with: Give em a picture. Im a 6ft, 350lb bearded man in a John Deere hat, with Feed Me on my belly. Just so yall get a clear picture.

Huck lifts his shirt to show his now-famous tattoo of the same name, arcing across his belly like a rainbow of disaffection. Take a picture, he said. I dont give a fuck.

After a moments reflection he said, You know, John was so smart. So maybe to someone that intelligent, this really was a shit town. Yeah.

Hes the embodiment of Woodstock, in a sense.

On his surface, literally, Huck makes a joke of himself. But underneath theres real self-awareness in the way he describes himself, and in his recognition of McLemores brilliance. Genuinely stupid people dont see genius when they confront it. Huck and Woodstock do.

Justin Huck Hardin whom the world now knows as Feed Me Guy. Photograph: Matthew Teague for the Guardian

The notion that this town was exploited by Reed insults the people of Woodstock, who are not slow or confused or intimidated by a visitor from New York. They have a slow drawl but quick wits, and theyre not just literate but literary, in a particularly southern way.

We talk like this because everybody here knows everybodys business, so were open, Hardin said, behind the grocery counter. She then referenced Kabram Burt, a friend suspected at the beginning of the podcast of being a murderer. I remember the night of the stabbing. Kabram in here saying openly, I about got stabbed in my gooch meat. (Hardin has a bachelors degree in English, and is finishing her masters in education.)

Across town Anne Stone, the local librarian, was one of the people I spoke with who did take real umbrage on hearing the podcast.

At one point on the podcast they were driving past John Bs old high school, and he described it as Auschwitz, she said. Her objection to that scene: His school is down in Centreville!

Stone, who considers herself a newcomer to Woodstock after 30 years here, said she hardly recognized the town she heard described in the podcast. Were mostly just normal people.

And shes right. On the podcast McLemore compared the town to Darfur and Fallujah and assorted scatalogical curiosities. Those descriptions went largely unchallenged, so the general impression on the listener is that Woodstock is unreachably isolated. That was true a couple of generations ago, when everyone in town worked a farm or cut timber. But now, Stone said, its just a bedroom community. People commute to either Birmingham, with a metro area of 1.2 million residents, or to Tuscaloosa, where almost 40,000 students attend the University of Alabama.

The other sign of evident displeasure this week came in the form of an editorial in the local Centreville Press. It made two main points: The podcast intimated theres corruption in Woodstocks town hall, but never followed through with any evidence. And it positioned a wealthy local family, the Burts, as the storys villains when theyd done nothing wrong. (At his hardware store the family patriarch, Kendall Burt, told me, Was nothing fair about it, and hiked a thumb over his shoulder to say, Get out.)

Producer Brian Reed in the field. Photograph: Andrea Morales

In the podcast one of the central questions left unanswered, and maybe unanswerable, is whether McLemores young friend Tyler Goodson used him and his family to gain access to a cache of gold and cash. So I went to Goodsons homemade house, a rambling structure of metal siding and allegedly stolen lumber. A woman came out and handed me a phone number for JD Terry, a local lawyer.

Id like to help you, the lawyer said, just as Goodson himself came tearing onto the property in a home-modified pickup truck. He wore a cowboy hat, sunglasses and no shirt. He gunned the engine as he passed, spun a donut in his yard, and disappeared behind the structure.

Good news. Tylers here, I said.

Cant let you talk to him, Terry said. Now if youd like to email me any offers youd like to make...

Are you talking about money?

I sure would love to let you talk with him.

Theres no need, I told him. He had answered my question.

Woodstock is a small southern town, but its people contain multitudes. Eccentrics, cashiers, story tellers and story sellers. It has churches, and a leather shop for ostensible motorcyclists. People laugh a lot, smoke too much and die too early. And theyre smarter than they let on.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/apr/09/s-town-podcast-woodstock-alabama-john-b-mclemore