At the foot of his Bibb County grave, curiosity seekers can find examples of things that were close to John B. McLemore’s heart.
Over the last year, the Green Pond Presbyterian Church cemetery has become a site of interest to those outside of Woodstock, a place where many have come to pay their respects to a man whose voice still lives on in “S-Town,” a podcast that has been downloaded nearly 77 million times since it was first released last March.
Adorning the ground are different kinds of flowers, a baseball, Wild Turkey 101 bourbon mini-bottles, an LP of “Eugene” by Crazy Joe and the Variable Speed Band and spare change. On the back of the headstone is a rendering of a sundial with a phrase McLemore once said on the podcast: “Life is tedious and brief.”
The popularity of “S-Town” has been anything but brief.
No one is more surprised about the show’s success or its widespread appeal than its creator, Brian Reed.
“I wasn’t thinking about that when I was making the show,” Reed said. “It was something that meant a lot to me and my co-workers that I liked and hoped some people would listen to, but I didn’t have any kind of notion of the scope of the listenership.”
Although his job as a senior producer at “This American Life” continues to take up the majority of his time, the popularity of “S-Town” has taken Reed around the world. He’s given lectures on the making of the show and answered questions about the podcast from fans in packed theaters in multiple cities.
Last May, Reed was invited as a guest on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” to talk about the podcast, where he displayed a gilded dime McLemore had made.
″‘The Tonight Show’ was a bucket list thing that I would have never even known to put on my bucket list because that would have never occurred to me that that could be something that would happen in my life,” he said.
Ultimately, Reed has a theory for why “S-Town” has remained relevant a year later: the power of good storytelling.
“I think a good story sucks you in and makes you re-evaluate your own life, your own attitudes and your own preconceptions,” he said. “It’s funny, it’s emotional, it makes you feel things. That’s what a good story does and I think that’s what people are going for because those are things we actively do when we tell a story.”
Tyler Goodson, a friend of McLemore’s featured on the podcast, once told The Tuscaloosa News that he hoped a movie would be made about “S-Town.” The popularity of podcasts have led to movie and television adaptations of different shows, such as “Homecoming” being adapted into a television series starring Julia Roberts or TV rights being optioned for “Serial” by filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
Reed said an adaptation of “S-Town” to TV or a movie may one day be in the works.
“Interest has been expressed to us, but nothing has happened as a result,” he said. “People are interested, for sure.”
Although the show received some news coverage before its release, many national and international publications quickly began writing about the show as its popularity soared.
Sarah Larson, a staff writer at The New Yorker, writes a weekly column on podcasts and first wrote about “S-Town” three days after its premiere. For Larson, podcasts have become part of the national conversation the same way film and TV have.
“The way that writing has changed on the Internet in the past decade has made so much more space for so many different more kinds of writing,” Larson said.
In her piece, ”‘S-Town’ investigates the human mystery,” Larson praised the compelling people portrayed in the podcast, yet also had some reservations.
“In the end, we empathize with almost every character, and find commonalities between them and ourselves,” Larson wrote. ”‘S-Town’ helps advance the art of audio storytelling, daringly, thoughtfully, and with a journalist’s love of good details and fascinating material — but it also edges us closer to a discomfiting realm of well-intentioned voyeurism on a scale we haven’t quite experienced before.”
A year later, many aspects of the show’s “unbelievable beauty” still amaze Larson, but McLemore remains at the forefront.
“I think part of it is the artistry that they used to put it together, but I think a huge part of it is John B. McLemore,” Larson said. “You just don’t come across a character that compelling very often, which I think is part of the reason they (Brian Reed and team) couldn’t resist doing it.”
Larson also believes the show has kept itself relevant and inimitable by not being easily categorized.
“There’s just something about the power of this form that’s different than other things we’ve experienced,” she said. ” ‘Serial’ wasn’t quite like anything else and ‘S-Town’ had a power that I’m not sure everyone involved might have completely known ahead of time.”
Although McLemore never lived to see the success of the show, others have been changed because of it. Cheryl Dodson, wife of Woodstock Mayor Jeff Dodson and a friend of McLemore’s, said the show changed her perspective and motivated her to do something about the issue of suicide.
It took a week for Dodson to listen to the show the first time.
“It was very painful to hear his voice again,” Dodson said. “I think I grieved him more the second time than the first.”
After the show was released, Dodson started a blog to document her feelings on the show, her relationship with McLemore and how the show opened her eyes to the struggle McLemore was going through.
“I wanted to tell more to it,” she said. “I think it has ended up being a really healing thing for me.”
Since starting the blog, Dodson has received letters from across the globe thanking her for telling more about McLemore’s life and what made him special.
“They would all talk about how they connected to the story and how many of them had lost people to suicide,” she said.
Dodson said that through the show, she has learned about how fragile life can be and how important it is to use one’s life for good.
“I’m 45 and before, I was just thinking I want to slow down and live a simpler life,” she said. “I felt like I was going through the motions, but now I have purpose.”
More importantly, the show gave incentive for Dodson so do something about suicide prevention. She now volunteers with the Alabama Suicide Prevention and Resources Coalition.
Dodson is also organizing her own suicide prevention walk on April 8 in front of Woodstock Town Hall, where people will learn more about suicide and can plant wildflower seeds, a plant McLemore loved.
“I would love for that to be the legacy, that we brought resources to those who needed help,” she said.
Some people in the Woodstock area have mixed feelings about “S-Town,” whose popularity caused an influx of journalists and tourists to the area over the course of several months.
Chris Price, a mechanic at Woodstock Motors, said he has only listened to a little bit, but likes what he has heard.
“It’s still on my to-do list,” Price said as he was cleaning his car at the West Blocton Quick Wash Friday.
Price has a personal connection to the show. Price knew both Goodson and McLemore, the latter of whom would often come to the shop to have his car worked on. Price described McLemore as “a damn nut,” but had fond memories of him.
“He would do anything to help you,” he said. “He was just a good guy.”
Tyler Goodson has mixed feelings about the show, which was ultimately used against him in court. Back in October, Goodson pleaded guilty to taking some things from McLemore’s property after he passed away. Before, Goodson had claimed that he had only taken what was his, but prosecutors argued he went onto the property after being told not to by law enforcement.
In the case, prosecutors used Goodson’s comments in the podcast to add more charges against him.
Attempts to reach Goodson for comment were unsuccessful, but part of an interview he gave to local NBC affiliate WVTIM-13 after the show’s debut gives some insight into his feelings about the show.
“It’s caused a lot of stress in my life, and my life’s been pretty stressful as it is and it hadn’t really helped much,” Goodson said in the interview. “Sometimes, I regret ever speaking into that microphone because I was probably upset or wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Despite having not listened to a lot of the show, Price said he is aware of the reaction to it, especially in the media, where different reporters and TV crews would come into town for months to learn more about McLemore and the town.
“It was kind of weird because nothing like that happens in a little town like this,” he said.
A year later, Price believes the show still has relevance in the community.
“It (talk) has died down a little bit, but people still think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “They talk about it from time to time.”
Drew Taylor is a reporter for the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News.