Many spoilers ahead:
The popular podcast Shit Town is many things — a story of life in Alabama, a reminder of the cycle of poverty, a primer on missed opportunities. It’s also an epically tragic gay tale, akin to a true-life Brokeback Mountain or The Children's Hour.
Produced by the people behind Serial and This American Life, Shit Town has been downloaded over 16 million times. Described as a “nonfiction novel” by host and executive producer Brian Reed, Shit Town slowly unfurls over the course of seven episodes. What at first seems like a story of police corruption in Woodstock, Ala., morphs into a possible whodunit, then a character study, and finally, a beautiful obituary. One of the reasons people have flocked to Shit Town is that it continually surprises without feeling manipulative.
Shit Town had its beginnings when Reed was contacted by John B. McLemore, an eccentric 40-something clock repairman living in Woodstock. McLemore was convinced a murder was covered up by police in his hometown — a place he derided as an ignorant swamp of hypocrisy and hate that he nicknamed "Shit Town." Reed traveled to Woodstock for the story, eventually discovering no such killing took place. In the course of his research, Reed and McLemore developed a friendship, and the series began to focus on this odd and brilliant Alabama man, who lived on a spartan, remote property with his elderly mother and a pack of dogs.
Deeply affected by the ills of the world, especially the plight of climate change, McLemore was an articulate, hilarious, and compelling subject all on his own. But suddenly, the series moved again to the issue of death.
In the summer of 2015, McLemore killed himself after drinking cyanide; a revelation that comes at the end of the second episode. Reed and Shit Town’s other executive producer, Julie Snyder, turned their microphones to those in John’s life and the messy aftermath his death produced. With no will left behind, a struggle over the care of McLemore’s mother, Mary Grace, ensued, as well as a tug-of-war over his property and finances. By all appearances, McLemore left the world a destitute man, but he was rumored to be a miser, with everything from vehicles to gold bars stashed around his vast home. McLemore’s cousins — the people left in control of his estate — began sparring with Tyler Goodson, a troubled young man that McLemore was intensely close with.
In reporting on the turf war over the McLemore estate, another secret would be revealed — McLemore had relationships with men and considered himself at least partly gay or bisexual.
“I don’t think he led with [the fact that he was attracted to men] and some people he never talked about it to,” Reed tells The Advocate. “I found that he was erratic in the way he described his sexuality to people in his life, if at all. He described it to plenty of people, but it would come in different ways.”
As the episodes unfold, readers discover the loneliness and heartbreak he encountered and the straight men he’d fall in love with — which possibly include Goodson — who would eventually disappoint him.
The circumstances of McLemore’s death are indeed strange; he made calls to various people the night he ended his life, and some participants in the podcast even suggest someone encouraged McLemore to kill himself. What is known is that McLemore suffered for much of his life with severe depression and often contemplated suicide.
While being partially closeted in an impoverished, racist, homophobic town certainly did nothing to inmprove McLemore’s state of mind, Reed is hesitant to say his life would have gone a different way if he decamped to New York or even Birmingham. A heartbreaking discussion with Olin Long, a onetime gay friend of McLemore’s, illuminated Reed’s thoughts on whether Shit Town was the impetus for his melancholia.
“I asked Olin if John moved away or met a guy or opened a nursery could he have been happy,” Reed says. “Olin wasn’t so sure, reflecting on the amount of work he had to put in, in terms of therapy and working through his own issues growing up gay in Alabama. He was drawing on his own experiences to say, John hadn’t put that work in. So he worried that even if that happened, John would still have a lot of anger and other resentments.”
In the series, Long shares his love of Brokeback Mountain, which he saw dozens of times upon its 2005 release. After much urging, Long convinced McLemore to see it, and the latter ended up sobbing at the story of two men in love, forced apart by a homophobic society. It's easy to see McLemore identifying with Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar character, who refuses to give up the closet and start a new life as an openly gay man.
When asked if McLemore’s lonely gay/bi/queer life is still common in Alabama, Reed — a consummate storyteller who does not like speaking for other people — frets over the answer.
“[Shit Town] is very much a story of [McLemore's] life, and I don’t want to make a broad statement because I just don’t know [about the experiences of other gay people in the South],” Reed says. “I’d have to assume, yes, there are people living a similar experience. I think it’s safe to assume that many people are living through an experience like John’s, especially men of his generation and from that part of that world.”
Some Woodstock residents openly air racist and homophobic statements in the series, but it’s more muted than one might imagine (of course, people act differently when they’re being recorded). Goodson, for example, knew McLemore had a little “sugar in his tank,” as he says in the series, but remained a devoted friend up until his death. When asked whether he thinks Southern towns like Woodstock are evolving, Reed relays this story.
“I talked to a couple of John’s friends who he was not out to, but who assumed he was not straight,” Reed says. “Those conversations I found illuminating in different respects. The people I’m thinking of would use words like “funny” — like, “I assumed he was ‘funny’” — words that would not be nice to be called. At the same moment, they would say that ‘But it wouldn’t have changed anything if he told me.'
“What I got from those conversations was I think John could been out to these people and it would have been … OK. I don’t know if you get my tone in the way I’m saying ‘OK.’ I don’t think it would have been OK. They would have dealt with it and they would have said some stuff and it would have been something injected in their friendship or relationship that he wouldn’t want, and I can understand why. I don’t think it would be a complete cutting off or a danger, though.”
During many of the events of Shit Town, Alabama public officials — including those in Woodstock — were waging war against the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was eventually fired for instructing state probate judges, who are in charge of marriage licenses, to defy the ruling. Reed sees this as both hopeful and disappointing, considering that Alabama elected Moore in the first place, knowing his profound antigay animus.
“The line I’ve heard before is ‘Hate the sin, but not the sinner,’” Reed says of his time in Alabama. “You’re not quite accepted as a full person with [an LGBT] identity.”
Listeners can’t help but wonder what McLemore would think of Shit Town’s success, or if he would find any satisfaction in knowing he helped shed a light on this corner of the world and the struggle for minorities to establish fulfilling lives in such places.
“He could be thrilled by [Shit Town] and excited,” Reed says of his friend, “but just as easily think he’s become part of pop culture and hate it.” Reed is certain of one thing: “He would wish there was more discussion of climate change.”
Find out more about Shit Town here.