Shannon Cason Gets Honest

You'll hang on his every word when you start your guaranteed binge listen

For new listeners to Shannon Cason’s Homemade Stories, it might be worth going as far back as 2014’s “Bath House” episode. In that story Cason, a straight man, explains why he went to a bathhouse with a gay friend: he was promised “great chicken soup.”

“Life is about new experiences!” he tells listeners, quickly appending, “I mean, within reason.”

“Straight guy goes to gay bathhouse to try soup” is a one-note joke, and Cason moves beyond it quickly. Instead of a straight recounting of experience, he delivers the bathhouse anecdote swaddled in a nest of little discussions both more and less connected to the subject at hand. In under 13 minutes of antic digressions and personal confessions, Cason has probed masculine insecurity, admitted to having been a petty husband, set the boundaries of friendly civility in discussion, solved an ant infestation, and eaten chicken soup in a bathhouse while wearing only a towel. The episode is a masterpiece in a form that hasn’t quite been sorted out yet, and can only really exist as a storytelling podcast episode.

Editor’s note: I listened to this short episode before finishing the story, and I recommend it! It was a fun way to experience this.

The greater podcast-listening public is more familiar with Cason from his many appearances on Snap Judgment, the Moth, and Risk over the last decade. Others may know his short-lived WBEZ podcast The Trouble. But Cason has been diligently making Homemade Stories since 2009, delivering 113 episodes to date. Though for a time affiliated with Chicago’s WBEZ, the show will only ever be a vehicle for Cason, his family, and his particular view of the world—a fact underlined by the way Cason releases episodes on his own schedule, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes once a year. That schedule reflects the time it takes Cason to assemble each episode.

“It could be as short as a few hours, and sometimes it can be as long as half a year,” Cason says. “A lot goes into [each one], and I want to improve them. Podcasting has exploded in a lot of ways. I got a lot of things to say, but I think you go through seasons and you want to say a lot, and then you go through seasons where you you just have to live your own life”

Photo by Jonathan Gibby

“Bath House” is in no way a microcosm of the typical Homemade Stories episode, which doesn’t exist. Cason has dug deep into his own failings, chiefly in his detailed retelling of his gambling addiction (HS #17 “Insidious”) and the choice to “borrow” $50,000 from the grocery store bank where he worked with a doomed plan to double it at the casino and return it after lunch. That led to his conviction for felony embezzlement (HS #74: “The Little Box”), probation (HS #34 “Probation”), and his introduction to 12-step recovery.

Cason’s treatment of his gambling addiction has been frank and neither sentimental nor conclusive. He tells stories about his past experiences with addiction, but in the present he acknowledges addiction as a force with continued power, one that imbues even a distant casino sign with a nauseatingly magnetic draw (HS 101 “Bad Coffee”). Though he’s serious about his recovery from addiction and his participation in 12-step programs, he also refuses to frame 12-step recovery as a simple, permanent solution to addiction, and instead captures precisely how much continued struggle is suggested by the 12-step maxim “one day at a time.”

“We all feel like if we talking about it, we had to be over it. I never wanted to say gambling is behind me,” Cason says. “I think summing it up, like, ‘I went to the 12 steps and everything is gone,’ you know, that’s fake. I wish I could say that everything was happy, but you know, this is life, and it don’t really wrap up like that. I still might fuck up sometimes. So I want to be real and honest—real with myself. I try. I’m not perfect with it, but I want to go further. I want to push that. I wanna think about like, what’s the truth with myself? What am I really feeling right now?”

In potentially his most heartrending episode (HS #58 “Police”), Cason recalls being 12 and stopping at a corner store on the way to his Boy Scouts of America troop to spend a hard-earned dollar on Better Made Red Hot Chips and a can of Faygo Peach. Returning to the street, the pre-teen Cason (who wasn’t wearing a Boy Scouts uniform) was racially profiled by Detroit police’s anti-drug tactical team, who were carrying out a drug raid. Handcuffed and stuffed into a van (“like slavery transport”) with whichever other young Black men were in the immediate vicinity, Cason was driven to a holding cell in a dark basement.

“This may surprise some people, but to some, maybe not so much,” Cason explains. “The police started whuppin’ everyone’s ass. One [officer] cut his hand punching someone, and [the police] just stomped that guy out.”

Photo by Jonathan Gibby

When they got to Cason, he explained he was on his way to his Boy Scout meeting, and a police officer “dressed like a Ninja Turtle” smacked him “so hard it took a while for the pain to catch up with the actual sound of the smack,” then smacked Cason again when he repeated the truth, until Cason finally lied that he’d been selling drugs. What makes the story so overwhelming isn’t just the vivid recounting of vicious injustice. Instead, it’s Cason’s skin-crawling descriptions of incompetent, brutal police that drive the horror home. The only thing that could have made that awful scene more unpleasant was seeing the police in the cold light of their ineptitude, fervent in their belief they’re bringing hard love to the streets and therefore doing good. Cason isn’t compelled to twist his point home: rather, he leaves the breadth of the gap between racist trauma and oafish good intentions for the reader to feel.

In recent episodes, Cason has continued to consider the pall of fear police violence casts over Black communities at the most intimate level: in the home. Mingling his acuity as a storyteller with his bold depth of emotional disclosure, Cason has produced quietly devastating episodes about the constant fear of racist police violence as it resonates across a single American family. (HS Special Report – What I’ve Been Up To)

Yet there are only a handful of Homemade Stories episodes liable to make a listener cry. Certainly, most will make the listener laugh, and a few are funny before anything else. The rest work with a more nuanced palate of emotions between comedy and tragedy. A few episodes deal with specifically with Cason’s opinions about the world (HS #17 “Wear More Suits,” HS #102 “Help For Men,”). Some earlier episodes contain Cason’s fictional short stories about characters that sound not dissimilar from the living characters we encounter on the show, as in HS #49: “Johnny Walker Smith”. But the majority of the Homemade Stories canon deals in observations of the hidden details of commonplace banalities (HS #75 “A Simple Honest Story”; HS #96 “Downstairs Neighbours”; HS #98 “A Perfect Day”; HS #106 “Three Homes”). The stories that reveal the depth beneath simplicity are Cason’s favorites.

“If I’m on a train in Chicago, and I’m listening to the guy behind me talking on the phone about losing his mama, you know? Or the guys at White Castle talking about one of their friends dying—those days stand out. ‘Cause I think we all stand to the side and watch or listen from afar. I want those things to resonate with people in a way where I feel that too.”

“What if we could go a little deeper? What if I tell a story and I don’t want you to like me at the end? That’s honesty.”

For years, Cason has paid particular attention to his family and extended family, interviewing his relatives and exploring their lives, careers, and identities as regular Detroiters, always finding some gleaming moment of connection, insight, or pathos to inspire listeners to hear these stories as universal. Listeners quickly become familiar with Cason’s father Billy (HS#77, “The Man”), a legend in the world of Detroit Black hair care with storytelling flair to match his son’s (HS #95, “Detroit 1967”). We get to know Shannon’s daughter Zoe, who makes occasional cameos, and hear about the day-to-day ups and downs of his marriage to Cindy, whose cameos nonetheless suggest a formidable personality. Strongest willed among the characters is Cason’s mother Bessie Mae Cason (HS #56 “Bicycles”; HS #107, “A Mother’s Worry”), with whom he spent much of his early adolescence sharing a bedroom, sleeping on the floor before moving to a spot under the dining room table. Cason’s family is a study in strong wills and fascinating characters, and with connections as intimate as these, Homemade Stories has an impressive ability to cultivate the listener’s immediate trust, which Cason connects to his commitment to honesty above all.

“If we tell a story, why not really be honest in the story?” he says. “Even in my honesty is some half truths to what I’m saying, but to just be real about it? What if we could go a little deeper? What if I tell a story and I don’t want you to like me at the end? That’s honesty. We feel like we got to sum up a story, like what I’ve learned from this that happened, and I’ve changed. Stories have to have change in them, but sometimes you change for the worse.”

Photo by Jonathan Gibby

At his most revealing, Cason has asked hard questions he believes are universal, even if they’re universally uncomfortable. Recalling an episode in which he admitted he wished he was a better man, a better husband, and a better father, Cason exclaims, “What fuckin’ man ain’t said that about himself? Let’s be real about it. Sometimes you’re scared. Sometimes you’re vulnerable. I try to be honest about me, to put everything on me and not the other person.”

Another motivating factor is Cason’s own experience of seeking other people’s voices and stories to carry him through periods of turmoil—a desire he sees as a human constant.

“You just want somebody to talk to,” he says, “and you might not have somebody. You got different groups that you could be a part of to share what you’re going through, but for me having the podcast is an outlet where I can talk, and share things of my own. A big part of it is that I wish I had somebody to listen to sometimes. If I’m going through something in my relationship or if I’m going through something with addiction, I don’t know how many times I’ve searched YouTube for ‘lost all my money how do I feel,’ trying to find somebody who’s trying to survive that—even just on YouTube. ‘Or my lady cheated on me, how do I feel right now?’” (HS #86, “Cheating”)

Cason’s particular storytelling style alone makes Homemade Stories worth listening to. His patient, conversational delivery belies the diligence Cason applies to his writing, drawing on a cornucopia of influences ranging from his time as an MC in Detroit’s hip-hop community (he once recorded a verse with late Detroit visionary J Dilla), memories of pastors who’ve given sermons that connected with him, and particular comedians (he cites Chris Rock) who succeeded in pushing audiences in “going a little further [to face] what’s totally real.” Cason studied advertising, not literature, and for many years worked as a salesman—a skillset reflected in his confident, “trust-me” delivery.

But however conversationally he conveys his narrative, Cason produces writing with the craft and precision of an assiduous reader (HS #62 “Read More”). He talks often about his love of crime literature, praising authors like Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosely, Ed McBain, and Cormac McCarthy. While Homemade Stories offers the easy narrative glide of a fast-paced crime novel, Cason is as likely as not to use that momentum to bring a story to a deliberate lack of resolution, a scene that simply hangs in the air in Cason’s lyric prose. Though he’s tipped his hat to Chekhov and Walt Whitman, Cason cites US short-story master Raymond Carver as an enormous influence on the show, saying, “You read his stories, and nothing really happens in those stories. I learned a lot from him.”

Photo by Jonathan Gibby

Every Homemade Stories fan likes a different kind of story, Cason acknowledges, “but my favorites are where nothing really big has to happen.” He’s inclined toward books and movies that concern themselves with pedestrian matters: “I almost enjoy the simple time-taking things. Sometimes [a movie] can pull it off right, and this person is, like, just spending time with their kids, but I almost want to rewind it. I know some of the audience may not like a mundane story with no significant ending. But I know it’s a lot of listeners who like that, who enjoy stories that can go on in their minds, [that listeners can] carry out and say, ‘This is what happened. I know what’s going to happen to [the characters].’”

Cason’s ability to charm listeners down rabbit holes and into stories with seemingly dead ends pays off—he frequently ends stories with surprising moments of connection that bring their whole structure to light. Episode #51, “Bath House,” is one of those. Did you think Cason’s digressions about Archimedes and picking petty, jealous fights with his wife would ultimately lead nowhere? No, those subjects return to seal the end of the episode, as strands in Cason’s stories often do. Listeners just need to be patient and let Cason guide them where his story takes them.

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