Before 'S-Town,' There Was ‘Buttholeville’

And it had its own John B. McLemore too.

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Apr 14 2017, 8:46pm

Photo of O'Neal Bridge in The Shoals, AL, by Brent Moore via Flickr/ Creative Commons

[This article contains spoilers for S-Town.]

Unless you're one of those people who, like my dad, "just can't do the podcast thing," you've heard all about S-Town—or Shit Town, as its protagonist John B. McLemore says. The breakaway hit of this year's online narratives, from the folks at This American Life and Serial, Brian Reed's multi-year odyssey through the labyrinthine hedge maze that was the mind of McLemore and his, shall we say, conflicted relationship to his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama, has spawned zillions of think pieces and transfixed the NPR crowd.

But you know all that already. Let's hear from someone who grew up in another Alabama Shit Town: Drive-By Truckers co-leader Patterson Hood, who, 29 years before this podcast was born, wrote a song called "Buttholeville" while living in Florence, Alabama.

"Dirty little secret," Hood has said. "I wasn't actually intending the song about any one particular town at all. I was certainly frustrated about where I was and there was a lot about my hometown that was pissing me off for sure, but the song was more about my general state of mind."

Which might sound a little familiar to those who've listened to S-Town. After hearing about the show and McLemore from friends, and before listening to it, Hood—who once told me he'd spent his own life "at war with his own state"—was instantly reminded of a compatriot: Byron "Alien Autist" Wilkes, a.k.a. "The King of the Malcontents," an old friend of his from Florence—one he met when he was three years old, thanks to the fact that Wilkes's mom ran the daycare toddler Hood attended.

They remained friends as long as Wilkes was on the planet, and McLemore and Wilkes were two immensely talented peas from the same discontented pod. "He was just that guy," he says.

Like McLemore, Wilkes lived alone with his mom and took care of her. He ran the Florence comic book shop—like the S-Town's Black Sheep tattoo parlor, it was a third place for Buttholeville's misfits. "And he was a great painter," Hood says. "He did some of the inside artwork for [Trucker's album] Southern Rock Opera."

He was also paranoid. "He wouldn't let us use his real name in the credits because he said there were people looking for him, and if we used it, they would be able to find him," Hood recalls, adding that he dedicated the 2011 album Go-Go Boots to Wilkes (and Vic Chesnutt). Wilkes believed George W. Bush wanted him dead, and Hood recalls hanging out with him on the eve of 9/11. "He was completely freakin' out because he was so convinced that creepy shit was about to happen."

And then the next day… "He was completely off the deep end. He was so freaked out that somebody knew he'd been sayin' that and they were about to come get him. He got pretty delusional sometimes, but he was uncannily correct most of the time. He was certainly one of the smartest people I've ever known."

Hood says Wilkes passed away of hepatitis in 2009 back in Florence.

In one of McLemore's most memorable sound bites from the show, he describes the hometown he's come to loathe. "We ain't nothin but a nation of goddamn chickenshit, horseshit, tattletale, pissy-ass, whiny, fat, flabby, out-of-shape Facebook-lookin', damn twerk-fest, peekin' out the windows and slippin' around listenin' on the cell phone an' spyin' in the peephole and peepin' in the crack o' the goddamn door an' listenin' to the fuckin' sheetrock...Mr Putin pleeease, show some fuckin' mercy. I mean c'mon, drop the fuckin' bomb, won't you?" he says before sighing, "I gotta have me some tea."

Hood understands the sentiment. "I know so many people who never leave their home, and they hate it," Hood says. "They hate it, but some of their reasons for stayin' are legit—it's like 'Who's gonna take care of mama, who's gonna feed these dogs, who's gonna cut my labyrinth?,' you know."

Hood says he grew up terrified in some ways he would become one of those people, and confesses to sharing McLemore's tendencies. "I mean I stayed in Buttholeville until I was 30 despite a million really valid reasons why I needed to leave. I still believed I could make this thing I was tryin' to do work from there. And I didn't wanna leave my family, didn't wanna leave my grandmama, but at some time I had to do it, and it was one of the hardest things I ever did."

Moving first to Athens, Georgia, a liberal college town, was an eye-opener, one that helped Hood realize he could cut ties with the South altogether, not that that was his real motive.

He's since come to understand there are Shit Towns and Buttholevilles dotting the entire country, from sea to shining sea. Those who would think of John B. McLemore's story as a Southern Gothic tale are misinterpreting it, so too are those who would see it as an indictment specifically targeted at small towns in the Deep South, or the rural poor.

Since S-Town dropped on March 28th, I've talked to a half-dozen people who grew up in such places from all over. Hood stressed the responsibilities that can bind you to your old home, no matter where it may be. Jon Freeman, a Nashville-based Rolling Stone writer who grew up gay in the north Alabama town of Arab ("Ay-rab"), says there's more to it than that. In a small town, what you sacrifice in anonymity, you gain in empathy. "There are people you can reach out to and count on," he says.

That's true North, South, East, and West.

Hood points out that Athens was as politically liberal as Portland is, and much more racially diverse. "But in both cases, once you get outside the city limits, you might as well be in fuckin' Alabama," Hood says. "Once you get outside of Portland, the folks in rural Oregon are every bit as redneck as anybody I ever met."

Shit Town is a story of genius trapped in small-town America, and it could have taken place anywhere from Florida to Maine, California's Imperial Valley up to eastern Washington state, from Watertown, New York to Pocatello, Idaho—a stone's throw away from virtually any big city in the U.S., the land of the long-term raw deal.

Perhaps that's partially why Woodstock natives are not insulted by the show. They were proud of and loved the troubled genius in their midst. About the only thing they were upset about Reed's podcast was when the reporter allowed McLemore to compare his high school to Auschwitz. Not because that comparison might have been a tad bit overblown, but because McLemore's alma mater was not in Woodstock at all, but in the nearby town of Centreville.

As listeners well know, the second episode of S-Town ends with a heart-sinking twist when we discover McLemore has ended his own life. Since the podcast landed on Internet, more than 140 tributes have been posted to his online obit, everywhere from American hipster burgs to Amsterdam to New Zealand and other Shit Towns from coast to coast.

"Man, rest in peace," wrote Parker Cobb of Kenner, Lousiana. "You've inspired me in ways I don't think you knew were possible. You made a difference."

"Even with climate change, John, this world feels colder without you," wrote an anonymous Indianan.

More than one person trotted out a cliche, but a most apt one ("Shine on you crazy diamond"), while still others spoke for almost everyone who boarded the Shit Town Express and rode it to the end of the line: We all found ourselves truly mourning a total stranger.

Which all sounds very much like what Hood had to say on the passing of Wilkes, McLemore's Buttholeville doppelganger:

"His sense of humor was unstoppable and his mind relentless."

Follow John Nova Lomax on Twitter.

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