CBS 42 Investigates: The Truth Behind S-Town

For people in Woodstock, Alabama, the last six weeks have been a whirlwind. Since the podcast "S-Town" became available, more than 40 million people have downloaded it. It's now the most popular podcast in history.

"S-Town" is a moniker for the town, where the "S" stands for a word we can't say on TV, but we can tell you it has four letters and ends with 't'. The nickname was given to the town by one of its residents, John B. McLemore, a longtime resident who becomes disgruntled by Bibb County and his life there.

This is a special report featuring multiple videos. Click here if you're having trouble seeing them.

Cheryl Dodson discusses Woodstock's new nickname

However, many of the people who make their home in Woodstock want podcast fans to know-that isn't how they think of their town.

"You kind of think that you hate to be labeled that forever," said Cheryl Dodson, a friend and former business partner of John B. McLemore, who is featured in the podcast. She is also married to the town's mayor, Jeff Dodson.

"You can call it what you want, but this is our home," she said.

The Dodson's Southern hospitality

When you go to visit Cheryl and her husband, Jeff, they are eager to show you what they love about their town. When we visited, they brought out the local food favorites, from barbecue at Track Side BBQ to the famous banana pudding on the podcast.

"You know, people at work go, 'ooh, what would I have to pay Jo Mammy for a pudding?'" said Cheryl, as she dished out some dessert.

Banana pudding! (CBS42/Brittany Bivins)

Cheryl wants to set the record straight (SPOILER ALERT)

The food isn't the only thing she says makes Woodstock special.

"Everybody knows everybody," Cheryl said. That's part of the reasons she says she wants to set the record straight on "S-Town." She says there are parts of the show, including the relationship between John B. and the Burt family, that have been different in reality.

"I thought that the relationship between John and Kendall looked like there was animosity that really didn't exist," said Cheryl.

Kendall is Kendall Burt, one of the owners of K3 Lumber, a local business featured in the podcast. When the show's producer, Brian Reed, who also works on "This American Life" and "Serial," visited Woodstock, he was there with a purpose. John B. had called him, Reed, says on the show, "and asked him to solve a murder." He said that murder involved the Burt family, and a member who committed the crime, then had it covered up.

By the end of the second episode, it's clear the murder never happened. However, Reed continued talking to people in Woodstock. Even after the suicide of the podcast's central character, John B., his reporting continued. He interviewed Jeff and Cheryl Dodson a few months before the podcast aired.

"I couldn't understand-really, where the story was going. John was gone, there was no murder. So I'm like, 'What are we talking about?'" said Cheryl.

Tyler Goodson: "Since the podcast has come out, it's been really sad."

The podcast, in addition to its millions of listeners, has been critically lauded for its style, compared to an audio novel. It focuses not on a conventional murder mystery narrative, but on John B., his relationships with others, and his relationship to his town.

John B. McLemore.

"I had no idea of what it would become, and I don't think anybody else did either," said Tyler Goodson.

Goodson is a familiar name, with a familiar voice, to the podcast listeners. Goodson is in his early twenties, and while he starts out working for John B., their relationship evolved, first into friendship.

"After awhile, they treated me like family," said Goodson.

While parts of the podcast focus on Goodson's legal situation, he can't talk about it while the case is pending. He did talk about his friend, John B., and the effect the podcast has had on his life.

"It's been emotional. It has been since he died, but since the podcast has come out, it's been really sad," said Goodson.

Tyler Goodson's tattoo in memory of John B.

Cheryl & Jeff discuss emotional impact of podcast

Cheryl Dodson has similar feelings about the emotional impact of the podcast.

"It was tough to hear his voice again," Cheryl said, referring to John B., who died in June 2015.

Her husband, Jeff Dodson, is one of many people who, if you ask them, will tell you they aren't sure what John B. would have thought about gaining international fame through some of his deepest secrets.

"You know, you have to think he wouldn't have. Some of it, it was pretty, it was pretty...personal," said Jeff.

Jeff Dodson, along with his wife, was in business with John B., several years before his death. Together, they operated Woodstock Garden Center, where they sold plants and flowers. It was the passion for horticulture that helped Cheryl and John B. click in the first place, Cheryl told us. After that, he became a regular at family functions, often hanging out with their kids.

The Dodsons and John B. eventually had a falling out, which led to John B. suing Cheryl personally. That story is discussed on the podcast. By the end of his life, Jeff says, they wouldn't have even recognized John B.

"The tattoos and all that, that was stuff he hated," said Jeff.

Tyler Goodson talks about reporter Brian Reed, John B's grave

The tattoos were part of his life with Tyler Goodson. Goodson was spending a lot of his time with John B. at the time Brian Reed began reporting his story. He says when the reporter first flew down, he didn't think much about it.

"I had no idea of what it would become, and I don't think anybody else did either," said Goodson.

He ended up being very open with the reporter, as did John B. Their interviews, as well as interviews with their friends and family, shaped the first several chapters of "S-Town."

Since the show dropped, people have come from all over the world to visit Woodstock, try to peek at his famous hedge maze, and lay coins and trinkets at his grave.

Tyler Goodson inside the maze before John B. died.

"I used to visit the graveyard, but I don't want to go anymore," said Goodson. "People are crawling out of the woods."

John B.'s grave

Woodstock mayor's takeaway on podcast: 'Maybe it shows how we can be a little more compassionate to others.'

Each person in Woodstock has their own take on the podcast, which is especially personal for the people featured on it.

Cheryl Dodson says she wants to use this for good. She's starting her own blog, cherylackerdodson.blog, where she's giving her own take on the people and places from "S-Town."

"I think it's probably propelled me on a larger scale to want to do good, and just hold our head up and go forward," said Cheryl.

From the blog, she's sharing stories of other Southern characters, people she thinks "S-Town" fans might also want to meet. "I told Brian Reed, if you like John B., there's some other people you should meet," she said.

Her husband, Jeff, says the podcast can serve as another lesson.

"It's actually a motto off one of the sun dials. Said tedious and brief. That's what life is, tedious and brief," said Jeff, referencing the ancient time-telling method discussed on the show. "I said about this podcast, I said, you know, if we take anything away from it, maybe it shows us how we can be a little more compassionate and understanding of others. Maybe we can take that away from it."

You can listen to the all the chapters of "S-Town" wherever you download your podcasts.

"No trespassing" sign on the gate to the land that John B. used to own. (CBS42/Brittany Bivins)
The business John B. and the Dodsons used to own together. (CBS42/Brittany Bivins)
A model of John B.'s house. (CBS42/Brittany Bivins)

Web extra: Dinner, the door & more at the Dodson home

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