Preserving the art of Southern storytelling

I had been to Arkansas only once in my life until a month ago.

Now, I’m transported to the Starving Artist Café in the Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock once a week for an incredible 30-to-40-minute immersion into the wide-ranging true experiences of Southerners.

In the last month I’ve discovered and gotten hooked on the “Tales from the South” podcast. Around on public radio in Arkansas for seven years, “Tales from the South” can be funny, of course, or poignant or wistful or evoke any of a number of emotions. It definitely transforms my commute from a weary battle of taillights and bumpers to visions of pecan orchards, picnic baskets filled with fried chicken, stolen kisses in Sunday School classrooms and raccoons raiding birdfeeders.

I’m a recent convert to podcasts, and I’ve quickly learned the viral nature of the medium. It began with a Facebook post asking friends to recommend good podcasts to make my often hour-plus commute bearable. That led me to “This American Life,” a delight in its own right. Then, “This American Life” borrowed a story from “Snap Judgment,” another weekly podcast of stories around a theme, and it is now part of my weekly menu.

“Snap Judgment” aired a story a few weeks back by J.W. Taylor as read on “Tales from the South.” Taylor’s story of a church lock-in gone wrong and his coerced confession for making out resonated with me on a surprisingly deep level. As soon as I got to the office that morning, I subscribed to “Tales from the South” and now have a new weekly audio addiction.

The show is recorded each week in front of a live audience at the Starving Artist Café in North Little Rock. It features a musician and a visual artist, although obviously you can’t see the art on the podcast. There’s Mark Simpson with a bluesy guitar riffing in the background of the intros and outros. The podcast includes three stories from different storytellers and a song by the featured musician. Partial to Southern singer-songwriters, I think it’s a perfect formula.

All the credit goes to the show’s host and creator, Paula Martin Morell. A writer and creative writing instructor, Paula and her husband, Jason, own and operate the café. The pace of the show is quick and her commentary minimalist. The fine editing and production quality makes for a lively podcast, but with the sounds of the clinking silverware and glasses and audible responses from the audience, I can easily picture the scene with my mind’s eye.

I particularly enjoy the lack of pretension. These are writers, no doubt, and some are published. But all of the storytellers read their work with a down-to-earth “Hey, let me tell you about…” spirit that evokes barber and beauty shop conversations heard across the South.

And unlike my own put-on-for-effect Southern accent, their dialect is natural, unforced and not the least bit uneducated. Perhaps if I spent a little more time in Texas, I could retrieve my native accent that I purposefully suppressed when my family moved to Central Florida when I was 12. I think it would lend authenticity to my storytelling.

The stories themselves are treasures. Some are simple, some profound, and all of the stories are relatable. They aren’t always funny and not every attempt at humor succeeds, but as the storyteller reads his or her work, you can’t help pulling for them, joining in their quest to understand their emotions around a particular anecdote from their lives. Some authors are better than others at delivering their story without it sounding rote or monotone, but even those who aren’t performers still manage to give you something of value.

Besides, I’m sure it’s nerve wracking to get up in front of a live audience and bare your soul by sharing your writing. It’s hard enough some weeks for me to post a blog with embarrassing earnestness and vulnerability.

I’m grateful I found the “Tales from the South” podcast, but it’s a show that is begging to be experienced live. I’m polishing up my stories and planning a road trip to Little Rock. I’ll let y’all know when I get there.

Are there other Southern podcasts out there I’m missing? Please share! Leave a comment below and let me know what else I should be consuming to pass the time in my car. I’d be much obliged.

The dangerous South

The 2011 Mississippi River flood is a slow-moving disaster.

For an observer of Southern trends, it’s hard to ignore the tornadoes and floods afflicting the South this spring.

I’ve always thought California was the most disaster-prone region of the United States. They have earthquakes, wildfires, droughts, mudslides and traffic. But lately, the South seems to be giving the West Coast a run for its money. Southern states such as Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana have plenty of evidence for claiming “most dangerous state” superiority over California.

As the cresting Mississippi River spreads out on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, all of the attention on Louisiana is eerily reminiscent of our focus on that region this time last year during the unnatural disaster of the New Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana’s coast. And how can we forget the years-long recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

No, I’m afraid I have to admit that living in California may not be as dangerous as the South, particularly the Southeast.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute backed up my hunch. The South is the easiest place to die from a natural disaster. A 2009 study of natural disaster deaths revealed there were more than 20,000 such deaths from 1970 to 2004, with the majority occurring in the Southeast. The Great Plains and Southwest rounded out the top three.

 In 2009 alone, natural disaster statistics showed California came in fifth with 17 deaths, trailing North Carolina (39), Texas (33), Florida (30) and Illinois (29.)

I’m not sure this is a point of pride for Southerners.

As I combed through the data in that 2009 study, a curious statistic popped out – heat and drought kill more people than severe weather events. This serves as a unwanted reminder that this temporary cool spell in Atlanta belies the heat and humidity on the way.

Here’s the breakdown on what natural events kill people:

  • Heat/drought: 19.6 percent
  • Severe summer weather: 18.8 percent
  • Winter weather: 18.1 percent
  • Floods: 14 percent
  • Tornadoes: 11.6 percent
  • Lightning: 11.3 percent
  • Geophysical events: less than 5 percent
  • Coastal events: 2.3 percent

You notice what comes in at number three? Winter weather. Who can forget the winter storms this year? Here in Atlanta we were immobilized for nearly a week by a snow storm-ice coating. It was, well, unnatural.

Tuscaloosa tornado
An all-too familiar scene from Tuscaloosa, Ala., after April's deadly tornadoes.

As the images of residents abandoning flooded homes in boats and the remains of tornado-splintered homes being bulldozed continue, my heart goes out to the victims.

So maybe it’s time for you Southerners to pick up a weather radio, put new batteries in your flashlight, get a few jugs of water and shop for generators. Remember, hurricane season starts in two weeks.

From last week

The winner from my “contest” on best examples of “I’m just sayin’” or “bless her heart” goes to Meredith Shaw with a classic: “She can’t carry a tune in a bucket, bless ‘er heart.” Your prize? Internet fame. Isn’t that what everyone wants?