Sean Dietrich tells his stories of the South with an accent as thick as honey. The stories- ones of Southern people, places, and values- have earned him the moniker of “Sean of the South” and gained him loyal followers who love his heartfelt wisdom and inspiration as much as they do that thick accent.
Dietrich’s stories can be found on his website, where he writes a blog entry every day; the stories are shared on his Facebook page, which has more than 100,000 followers, and on his popular “Sean of the South” podcast. His most recent book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (Zondervan), is a memoir that evidences the power of faith and the human spirit to overcome a difficult background that included his father’s suicide.
One episode in the book tells of a newspaper editor’s now-ironic suggestion to Dietrich: “I’m gonna give you some free advice that nobody gave me. Nobody wants to read stories that are about happy things. That isn’t how you sell books, newspapers, or magazines. People like things that are gut-wrenching…. more blood and guts, less romance.” Dietrich’s own testimony is a testament to the fact that people do, indeed, need happy stories.
A Born Storyteller. Dietrich came by his storytelling gift honestly. He remembers hearing stories from many members of his family, and then started writing his own stories in elementary school. “Maybe it’s our generation, but we had storytellers around us. I can recall my mother, grandmother, grandfather telling stories. My mother was chatty and could start a conversation with anyone,” he said. “When I write, I think about that older generation that taught me the value of a good story.”
Dietrich, born in Missouri, moved to Florida when he was just 12 and dropped out of school at 14. Although he loved writing at a young age (and still remembers the fifth-grade teacher who encouraged him), he didn’t discover it again until he was an adult. “I was self-educated, so I read a lot, and I didn’t go back to school until I was in my 20s,” he said. “I did construction, hung sheetrock, jobs like that, but then I discovered that writing was what I really loved. It’s what connects me to other people.” The odd jobs eventually sent him to community college, then a semi-professional musical career (he still sings and plays guitar during speaking engagements), and ultimately to writing. His path also led him to wife Jamie (a native of Brewton, Ala.), whom he met at a church potluck in Destin, Fla. “I grew up Southern Baptist and always played for Wednesday and Sunday night singings. And at the time I worked part time playing for a little Baptist church,” Dietrich said. “I met this cute brunette at a potluck, and we got married six months later. We’ve been married for 18 years.”
Dietrich laughingly said that getting to where he is right now has been “a big, long train of fortunate events” and often expresses disbelief in his success. “I remember being on the road coming home from a speaking gig one night and I realized this is what I love,” he said. “I like to make people feel good, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I really have no idea what I’m doing, but I love doing it.” These days he’s one of the most prolific writers you can imagine, producing 900-word columns or blog entries every day and adding in more work on book projects. “It’s sort of compulsive,” he admitted. “I’ve written 3000 words a day for almost 8 years.”
A Loyal Following. Dietrich’s stories come from a variety of experiences- from meeting a stranger in a cafe, to eavesdropping on a conversation between two children on a creek bank; from what it means to be patriotic to what it means to show kindness. And the stories come from throughout the Southern states; they can be based on his own experiences or be inspired by others’. His posts on Facebook typically get around 5,000 shares and make the rounds on social media. “Stories find me,” he said. “It started as a blog, kinda on a whim. I wanted to write about the people and places in my region, and I didn’t have any higher desire for it. But things went really well. People keep reading, and I keep doing it.”
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? braves some more serious issues, tackling his father’s death and the broken family he grew up in as a young child. The book also introduced his writing to a larger audience and built his fan base. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Dietrich was on a multi-city book tour throughout the South. The night before the tour was shut down, he stood in lines in Nashville greeting fans and friends. The next day he was in Birmingham, saying good-bye to the tour and retreating home to Florida. “That night in Nashville, there were 400 people standing in line, hugging necks, telling their own stories,” he said. “And then it was over.”
Dietrich has changed since the pandemic hit, writing with a clearer focus and separating from the busy-ness of book tours and marketing efforts. “I was overworking myself, and I’m grateful now that I’m able to see that,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of virtual stuff, but we’ve mostly stayed home and haven’t seen many people.” The one exception was when Dietrich spent time filming commercials for Alfa Insurance in Birmingham and Columbiana. The invitation to be an Alfa spokesperson came soon after Covid appeared, and he was taken aback by the company’s interest. “I told them they had the wrong guy,” he laughed. “I have a face for radio.” The commercials have brought even more attention to Dietrich and his storytelling.
A Legacy of Faith. Underlying so many of Dietrich’s stories is a belief in the goodness of people, and in the importance of faith and religion in so many lives. Some of his recent columns include “Church Lady” (an ode to the women so many Southerners relied on), “Holy Cow” (a tribute to a “possible angel” who helped after a car broke down), and “Tight Knit” (a story of prayer shawls and other “holy” knitted objects).
In the South, he said, there’s no way to separate faith from everyday life. “That’s one thing I really love about Southern culture. It’s just part of our lives, and it’s not compartmentalized,” he said. “Everyone has an experience with church. If you have the flu, well Miss Anne’s gonna come check on you. You’re gonna be brought deviled eggs or a casserole. It’s about people and community.”
“I’ve visited other regions where people can separate religion from the rest of their life,” Dietrich said. “Down here, it’s ingrained, even in the phrases we use. ‘She needs Jesus’ or ‘Bless your heart.’ It’s part of us.” On a personal level, Dietrich said that faith has helped him through some of the lowest points in his life. Of course, the way he explains it is pure “Sean of the South.” “I’ve known a lot of people who didn’t grow up in a church setting like I did. Those people can call faith a crutch,” he said, “and if you ask me, that is the perfect description. Because without it, I wouldn’t be able to walk.”
–Cheryl Sloan Wray
Wray loves to tell her own stories –but nothing like Sean!– as a freelance writer and book author. She’s married with three daughters and six grandchildren and lives in Hueytown, Ala.
Did you enjoy this story? Read our full December issue here.
“Putting Up the Tree”
Sean Dietrich said his childhood Christmases were small and simple, but one year his father taught him an important lesson.
“The next Christmas, my father decided to help me see life more clearly. He let me accompany him on one of the annual holiday errands he always did for our church. We spent the evening going across town to deliver free balsam firs and sacks of gifts to needy families. These were sturdy trees, and the presents were mostly coats and shoes and hats. That night we visited many different neighborhoods. I was introduced to various children who lived in ramshackled homes with dogs under the porches and absent parents. My father wasn’t trying to give me a guilt trip, I think he was just trying to let me see the world as it was. And I did. I met kids my age who didn’t even seem to realize it was Christmas. They had no twinkling lights, no yard art, no butterscotch, no cheese logs, no nothing. There was one kid who I went to school with. He was waiting on his porch with his little brother when we arrived. His family not only lacked a tree, they were using flashlights because their electricity was off. The church delivered their groceries weekly. And their clothes came from donations. My father put on his biggest smile to make the delivery. We dropped off a garbage bag filled with gifts, and I was surprised to discover that these kids were actually excited about receiving so little. When the kids threw their arms around my father I saw peach-sized tears in their eyes. One boy shouted, “Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!” And I’ll never forget seeing that kid look admiringly at my father, then to me, and saying with complete sincerity: “Man, you’re SO lucky.” We rode home in silence. And when I arrived at our little house and saw our crooked tree, I felt differently about it all. I looked at our handmade decorations, and the popcorn garland, and the quilted advent calendar, and the candied pecans, and I felt downright silly. Then I sat beside the glow of our lit-up tree and got lost in the sounds of music. I could not quit thinking about what I had seen. And even though I am an adult now, and even though COVID-19 has made this year a crummy year, I still replay that boy’s words in my head. Because they remain so very true.”
(reprinted with permission from SeanDietrich.com)