This contains spoilers for S-Town, if you have somehow still not heard S-Town. Go and listen to S-Town.
Even now, two listens and four months later, I cannot accurately describe to you what S-Town is. It starts as a murder-mystery, then unfurls like a rose into something else, part small-town portrait, part loving obituary, winding through themes of love and hate and frustration and anguish and horology and Brokeback Mountain, with a zig-zag hidden gold subplot and a fucking maze, all told through a prism of honey-dipped southern accents and tattoo parlour shit-talkin' and neighbours squabbling passive-aggressively with other neighbours.
So yes: it is hard to explain exactly what S-Town actually is, but also we can be pragmatic about it, too – we can say, for instance, that it is the first true blockbuster podcast; the one thing anyone I know talked about in April of 2017; the first audio series of its kind to break the 40 million+ download barrier. We can say that it is the first podcast to even approach the realm of the novel in terms of scope and artistry. We can say, firmly, that it is a wonderful, transcendent piece of work.
So when the chance came up for me to talk to S-Town host and executive producer Brian Reed, I said: yes, I would like to do that. And then ahead of the interview I crushed an S-Town re-listen into a single 24-hour time period. "Oh my gosh," Brian says. "In a day? That's gnarly." Brian has only dipped in and out of the seven-hour piece since its release himself – "when it came out my wife and I listened together over, like, the course of a week, but I haven't done a whole listen through" – but I'm here to tell you now the time is ripe for another spin of it: there are nuances you appreciate more when you know how the whole saga ends; moments that support Reed's Mad Hatter theory, foreshadowing and dead ends; characters you hated the first time round ("Damn you, Faye Gamble!"), who you 180° on during the second listen ("I hope you have a fine support network around you, Faye Gamble!").
Part of the joy of S-Town is it contains just enough crevices to turn the latent listener into the most fervent theoriser, and now Reed is taking S-Town on tour to talk to everyone who's ever listened to the show and patiently sit through their theories about gold.
DOES TYLER GOODSON HAVE THE GOLD? A SPECULATIVE SERIES
FACT #1: Tyler Goodson feverishly hunted over the McLemore property for gold, taking in the many acres and the maze, and the shed and the area around it, and the many intricate gates beneath the property that he helped install (that he helped install), to the point that the police were getting involved and he was being charged with trespass, and even that didn't stop him, because Tyler Goodson has never been afraid of the police, especially when it's in the pursuit of what he thinks is right.
How did the tour come about? "Well, honestly, it was like: when people seemed interested in wanting more," Brian tells me, over the phone, "so I was keen to do it and it's cool." He just started. "I went to Australia a couple weeks ago to do the first event I've done, and it's been cool for me to hear from audiences and listeners and what they think about the show… and, I dunno: I found the questions really smart and engaging, and I learned things from the things people were saying, and people are bringing things to the show and seeing the show in ways that I couldn't have predicted."
One thing that struck me about S-Town was the weird universality of it: yes, it was very firmly set in a backwater Alabamian town, but parts of that community (the fingerpointing webs of blame, the drinking casually outside, the fights that flared up in supermarket queues and pizza joints, habitual male toplessness) really chimed and resonated with me, reminded me of the place where I grew up. John B's late-night phone calls and sink-pissing habits remind me of my own cousin, who likes to call me up like it's olden days and shout for a couple of hours about the neighbours he hates. "It's crazy to me that people from the UK, for instance, get a kick out of this story from Alabama," Brian says. "I'm so glad that it has that and inspires that thought."
I ask if Brian ever expected the podcast's mega-success. "Yeah, the answer to that is no," he says. "I feel we have an audience among our other shows [This American Life, Serial] that I expected some of them to at least come along for the ride, and I expected the appreciation for it to be kind of cultish, at best. To me it was a weird story, both in the topic of it, but also the structure of it, the format. We felt like we were trying things that were a bit weird and new, and I assumed they would not attract mass appeal. That was fine with me. I was doing the story because I liked it and my colleagues liked it and Julie Snyder – who made it with me – we just really liked the story, and that was the reason to do it."
FACT #2: And then Tyler just abruptly stopped looking for the gold. The McLemore property was over "hundreds of acres". Did Tyler Goodson search every last inch of it? Did he uncover every blade of grass, every dog turd, every maze-like rose? He did not. So why'd he stop? It feels like we are close to finding that answer in Episode #7, when Brian finds on his porch a curiously at-peace Tyler, a passive Tyler, something in him lightly altered, and they have a conversation that inches towards the truth in increments then shies its face away from it: and then, cedes to silence, the unheard off-record porch conversation—
One thing that really becomes clear – during a second listen, especially – is that S-Town wouldn't have happened without Brian's persistence in finding a story there, somehow. S-Town starts with the supposed murder investigation (podcast gold-dust) of Kabrahm Burt on Dylon Nichols, which soon fades when it turns out Dylon isn't actually dead; then it becomes a complex portrait of John B himself, his quirks and his extremes and the quiet moments in the night when he is close to peace, chanting quietly about climate change. When John B dies at the end of Episode #2, other podcasts would've ended; instead, S-Town doubles down, getting deep into the in-and-out of court goings-on of Tyler Goodson and John B's family, going down dead-ends of trucks full of wood and hidden gold. How did Brian know to keep at the story until it became S-Town?
"Honestly, it was always John and talking to John, and John being my guide through this and his view of his town," Brian says. "That was what made it a story for me. For a while I thought there might have been a murder or a cover up of some sort. So for me that was worth looking into. But even if the murder had been real, [John] was such an important part about that. Julie – my editor, who made this with me – we would just talk to each other, and we just knew we were never bored."
FACT #3: In the wake of S-Town going supernova, Tyler Goodson only conducted one (one.) network television interview, in which he said nothing or next to nothing (with respect to Tyler: the interviewer was especially un-inquisitive), despite you assume many, many, many requests for interview, and many, many, many lucrative promises of pay if he did. Question: so why would someone of Tyler's means and standing not milk his moment in the spotlight for everything it was worth?
A lot of the special alchemy of S-Town is down to where it's set. "The American south is a really special place to report," Brian says. "One of the things we look for in radio stories is, 'Is this person a good talker?' You can have a very interesting story happen to you, but if you're not a great talker it's probably not going to be the best radio story. But I just found that everybody who touched John's world was just—" he slips into italics here "—a really good talker, you know. I've never quite ran into that anywhere else, and I do think there's a culture of talking in the south, that kind of led to people talking to a way that is good for a radio story. It's just the way that they talk to each other. The way they talk on the phone, and they talk when they're hanging out in the backyard or whatever."
But going to this small town and repeatedly talking to the people there about a dead guy who may or may not have been a millionaire, and may or may not have been driven to the brink of madness by mercury fumes, didn't make for a cut and dry beginning-middle-end type story, so structuring S-Town in the way that it meanders and unfolds was a real feat of engineering.
"I don't think I ever got to the point where I was like, 'I need to put this aside,'" Brian says, when I ask if he ever gave up on S-Town in the three-year production process. "I definitely got to points in the reporting where I was overwhelmed and kind of at a loss for what to do next. We were interested in the people and we're interested in this place, and we kind of just trusted in that, but for our first story to happen, there was a lot of fishing around and a lot of material gathered that wasn't used. That felt overwhelming sometimes as a reporter. Is anything fair game down here? Like, I go with Tyler to a court case and I'm interested in this bail bondsman who he's dealing with. Should I go interview the bail bondsman and just tell his story as part of this? I did interviews at length who were only tangentially related to John or the central plot, who lived in the area or the town who had interesting stories, and I thought, maybe that's one way this show's gonna go."
In the end, the plotting of S-Town came down to good old fashioned stationery. "We literally structured it on a wall in our office," Brian tells me. "Kind of note cards on the wall that went around the corner, and the first note card structure – which is probably the second iteration of the structure – was nine chapters. Then we did a round of refining of that, got it down to seven. We literally have what we call an 'out area', for outs, where we take note cards that we're taking out and themes and ideas and tape, and just putting them on the bottom of the wall so you could still see them if you wanna re-insert them. That area was extensive. There was lots of stuff that was left out." I ask if there's ever going to be a nine-act director's cut. "No," Brian says. Okay. "That stuff was left out for a reason."
FACT #4: Unless Tyler Goodson only needed to stop, and only needed to do one interview, because he'd already found the hard assets. Because he already had the gold.
As with all massive cultural milestones, S-Town was forced through the hot take machine, minced and dissected, and came out of the other side – relatively – unscathed. There were two stand-out criticisms of the show: from Rolling Stone's excellent piece by Maaza Mengiste, on the erasure and tiptoeing around race; and the morality around making a show about a dead man, with audio recording of his funeral and information that could be construed as "outing" John B.
"I mean, I didn't out him," Brian is quick to correct. "Like, he talked to me about his sexuality. I went down there to investigate a murder, but when I went to visit him I was also clear that, I wanna see Shit Town through your eyes. And that's why we went on this tour, and that's why we went to things that had nothing to do with the murder; the majority of what we talked about was not the murder. He acknowledged it at the time: 'I knew you'd come down here and find other stories that were more interesting than what you came down here for.' He had a sense that we were fishing for a way to do this story, you know? And as part of that we were talking about many different things about many aspects of his life, and sexuality came up in that."
"It wasn't even something I was delving into or asking about at the time. So I didn't out him, and I think it's OK for reporters to do stories about people who are dead where you learn more about them than you do when you're alive. That's part of journalism. I think it's important to do it responsibly – I think it's important to be factual, to be thoughtful. I think it's important to ask questions about what certain information and details are adding to the story and what purpose they serve. You know, I think we put a lot of thought into what was put in and what was left out – a lot of the reason things were left out were for different reasons, like, 'This is too sensitive,' or, 'This doesn't add enough' – but I think that's fundamentally OK, and I feel comfortable with the decisions we made, because we were considerate and thoughtful about them."
FACT #5: Wait what if the gold is IN THE CLOCKS? No. No. I've gone wrong. I've gone mad. Strike Fact #5 from the record.
The same goes for the decision to include audio of John B's funeral. "I thought about it," Brian admits. "I recorded it not knowing I would use the recording. Again, I wasn't too sure if we were doing the story at that point, but I knew my relationship to this world is as a reporter, and so maybe this is a story, and so I recorded it with the thought that, at the very least, I want to write about this accurately. Honestly, mostly because it was a public event and anyone could go. It was outdoors and open to anybody, so I felt OK using it. It wasn't a private inside event, it was publicly advertised. I didn't wanna do anything that intruded on anyone. I wanted it to reflect the feelings I had about the funeral, which was, this funeral doesn't totally reflect the John I knew and others knew. That was kind of the purpose I wanted the audio to serve."
FACT #6: No hold on actually: Brian Reed starts S-Town (I'm now on listen three) talking about clocks, and clock repair, and witness marks: small notches and marks that act as a sort of map and history book all at once, about what has been done to the clock and where, small burrs in the assembly that hint at a wider truth. So is he not explicitly telling us, the listeners, in the very first moments of the show: Hey, Listener, I Have Left Witness Mark-Like Clues In Here For You! He is telling us there is a puzzle to solve.
Then there's the Rolling Stone piece, which argues that, by not delving deep into Woodstock's small-town American racism – see the entirely segregated tattoo shop Tyler part-owns in episode one, or his Confederate flag tattoo that goes unmentioned, or Reed's flattening of his own identity and that of his wife when mixing in among the town's people – S-Town fails its black listeners.
Reed is ready for the question. "I guess I could mention the Confederate flag; it wasn't a purposeful thing," he says. "You first get to know Tyler in this tattoo parlour – where, I feel, I made very clear, is a completely racially exclusive place – but when you're doing a story you don't include every detail about a person. So I felt like that wasn't a purposeful, like, I'm not mentioning that – I'm not trying to hide the association he has, the views he may have – but making it so you meet him in the context where I feel I was very explicit about the kinds of things that were being talked about.
"I'm interested in race and it's something I care about personally, and I think it's very important – it's one of the most important things in our country, certainly, and in the world – so there were different points of the story where I was trying to deal with race in different ways, and it was hard because the world that John lives in was white. I mean, the town he lived in was 90 percent white, so there are people of colour there obviously, and their experiences are important and I'm interested in their experiences – I'm sure they're very challenging in many ways – but the people he spent time with and the people that knew him were white. The way stories work sometimes, it's like you're constricted to the main people in the story, and the people in the story were white. That's the reality of the story, and something that, I wish, were different, because I'd be interested in the experiences of people of colour. I wouldn't want people to hear the story and to feel like it's not for them, or to feel alienated by it. And I'm sure that did happen to some people, and I regret that. It's something that I thought about a lot and that I care about a lot."
FACT #7: So surely they are there: the dog shed, the grates beneath the house, the roses, the upended piece of plastic Tyler dug up in his frenzied search, the porch conversation, the bus full of wood, the nipple rings, Church – these are all witness marks. They lead us to the centre of the maze. And in that centre, one simple truth: Tyler Goodson found the gold. Surely. Surely he did. Surely he found the gold.
"Did you leave clues," I ask Brian, final question, 45 minutes on the phone. "In S-Town. Did you leave clues there."
And he says: "Interesting."
Which is exactly what someone who left clues would say.
And then he says: "No, I'm not that masterful." He says: "I'm not that good."
Which, again: is something someone who left clues would say.
And I say: that sounds like something someone who left clues would say.
And Brian says: "Okay, well it's just hopeless for me to convince anyone of anything."
Which is exactly what someone who left clues would say.
And I say: yes.
And there is a bit of an impasse and I say: so you can't tell me about the porch conversation, and what went down?
And he says: of course not.
Which is exactly what someone who had a conversation off-record with Tyler Goodson about successful hidden gold acquisition would say.
And I thank him for his time, and for his wonderful podcast, and we say goodbye.
Author's note: Tyler Goodson fucking definitely found that gold.
Tickets to 'Creating S-Town: A New Way to Tell a Story' are on sale now. You can buy them here.