When You Can’t Get the S-Town Off of You

There are these golden moments in interviews where everything before and after becomes fuzzy, and […]

Josh Retterer / 8.15.17

There are these golden moments in interviews where everything before and after becomes fuzzy, and the clarity of what is happening between those two people gets thrust into sharp contrast, like an audio pull-quote. Recently I had just that experience.

I felt an urge to relisten to S-Town just a few weeks ago. It was even more moving the second time, hearing Brian Reed tell the story of the eccentric genius John B. McLemore and the equally colorful supporting cast of characters that were his family and neighbors. It was like listening to a real-life Flannery O’Connor story; Southern Gothic meets This American Life. I’m not going to rehash it here, because I would much rather you have the experience for yourself. I don’t tend to recommend things lightly, but seriously, go listen to it. Setting a record-breaking 10 million downloads in four days, it’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy it.

Not wanting to leave the conflicted and very human story of Woodstock, Alabama (the real name of S-Town) just quite yet, I tried to extend my stay by finding interviews with the people behind the series.

Just days after the show’s release, Longform podcast’s host, Max Linsky, sat down with S-Town‘s creator, Brian Reed, while he was still riding a high from its meteoric success. The conversation was intimate and relaxed, as he and Max had known each other for some time. That familiarity created a heightened the sense of authenticity when Brian reacted quite strongly to this comment by his friend:

Max: I’m interested in the tone with which you reported. I think there is a real danger when a, uh, Ivy league educated dude from Connecticut who works in New York City goes to spend a lot of time in a small town in Alabama.

Brian: (interrupting Max) God, you make me sound so… You just did to me what people were afraid I was going to do to people down there, by saying those things.

Max: Well, you didn’t let me finish my…

Brian: I’m not mad at you about it, but it is very easy to do.

Max: I’m interested in how you report a story like this from a place of non-judgmental curiosity, how do you do that?

Brian: I didn’t mean to sound so defensive about that, by the way, it came out wrong.

Brian went on to explain—more calmly—that his actual upbringing was much more humble than how being categorized as a New York City Ivy League educated elite might lead people to believe, but you couldn’t unhear what had just happened. It was a moment that stood out, making me reflect on how I would react in a similar situation. How would someone label me, or how would I label myself? I’m a member in good standing of the under-educated rural working poor, and—despite being a pale descendant of both the Angles and the Saxons, who would also identify as Protestant—I don’t think I could call myself a, um, er, Vespidae. Should I feel defensive about that?

That’s not rhetorical, I’m asking.

Brian Reed didn’t want to be identified as something he could have easily and honestly claimed for himself. But why the shame? Some of my best friends are coastal elites…

Why don’t we like labels, even an advantageous one? Maybe it’s generational. X-ers and Millennials prize authenticity, preferring not to be socially triangulated. During my decade living on Maui, I rubbed shoulders with any number of trust-fund kids playing at being recreationally unhygienic—often causing me to shower shortly thereafter. That high end patchouli they used was incredibly hard to get off. But why would the economically privileged play at being poor? The same reason the poor wish they were rich. We all feel like we are missing out on something, this persistent feeling that there has to be more. I like to tease my wealthy friends about their privilege, but the jokes always, always miss the mark. I think it’s because they view me as a Will Hunting type of character, minus the genius math skills, good looks, or relative youth—but sticking with the Matt Damon comparison (like lookin’ in a mirror)—it does have the effect of making me uncomfortable. We both engaged in a game of reduction. A détente is reached when we treat each other simply as people.

A theme through scripture is that God loves to mess with our labels, even the ones we put on ourselves when we play dress up/down:

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. (John 1:46)

If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, persecuting the church; as to righteousness under the Law, faultless.… (Phillippians 3:4-6)

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galations 3:28)

God incarnated into a family who lived in the equivalent of S-Town, and spread the message to all the wrong people, through a religious elite named Saul who himself received a fresh label. I can’t tell you how much I love that!

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

We are no longer condemned by the labels we place on ourselves or others, because they simply no longer apply. We weren’t fated to pretend, to quibble with the line from that famous MGMT song. We are now free, indeed.