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Tales from the South: True Grits 

Restaurant puts 'Tales from the South' on the airwaves.

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On the first Tuesday in February, more than 100 people crowded into a North Little Rock restaurant to listen to lies. Fishing stories, to be exact.

"Tales from the South," a weekly radio program of personal stories read by the authors, records live at Starving Artist Cafe, a Main Street eatery occupying a former furniture store; the ceiling is pressed tin and the floors are concrete. The art on the walls is largely amateur, with a preponderance of birds, flowers, fruit and horses. A price tag dangles from each.

The guest writer that week was to be Jerry McKinnis, long-time host of ESPN's "The Fishin' Hole." But McKinnis had to cancel at the last minute (though he no doubt would have approved of the mahi-mahi on the specials board), and actress Natalie Canerday, best known for her role as the mother in the movie "Sling Blade," stepped in to fill the spot.

Tucked into a corner by the bar, out of the flow of waiters and diners but visible from every table, was the reader's corner — a stool, high table and retro-style radio mic. Flanking the nook is appropriately Southern-themed art — V.L. Cox's screen door art, complete with soda-cracker signs and raccoons.

Paula Morell, "Tales from the South" host and creator and co-owner of Starving Artist, stepped to the microphone amid the din of conversations and clanking forks and asked everyone to turn off their cell phones. Then she gave them instructions: "If things are funny, laugh; if they're sad, groan." Tonight's diners are not only here for the food; they are also the radio show's live audience.

With introductions out of the way, Canerday stepped to the mic amid applause and, by way of disclaimer, said, "I only found out about this at 2:37." But the disclaimer proved unnecessary. Her free-form story, "From God's Country to Hollywood," was a rapid-fire, comical Portrait of the Actress as a Young Woman that recounted the hijinks of Canerday's early career, from child extra in "The Russellville Story," an ultra-local production, to the set of the Mike Nichols-directed film "Biloxi Blues."

In the Q-and-A session after the reading, Canerday, knowing her audience and the focus of the show, assured everyone: "I liked living in California, but I like living in Arkansas better."

••

The next Tuesday evening, before the dinner crowd poured in, Morell stopped her preparations long enough to relate the history of "Tales from the South." The program started six years ago, almost by accident, she said from her perch on one of Starving Artist's barstools. Morell was teaching an online English course when a fellow professor mentioned that he was starting a radio show that would feature true personal stories. Morell sent out a call to writers she knew in the area and received several stories. But then the radio show never materialized.

"Suddenly I had 10 really good stories on my hands, and I thought, hey, we should try to get a one-time show," Morell said.

So she cold-called KUAR and asked Ron Breeding, the station's news and program director, if he'd be interested in airing a few stories read by the authors. That first show brought such a positive response that KUAR asked Morell to do a regular show, and "Tales from the South" ran once a month for the first five years.

After the first year, the show began recording live at Starving Artist, then located in downtown Little Rock. It was a smaller affair than it is today — 30 to 40 people, drinks only, no dinner. In late 2008, Starving Artist moved to its present location in Argenta, downtown North Little Rock. When the restaurant moved across the river, the show naturally came with it. Then in 2010, the William F. Laman Public Library, a branch of which is housed in a converted firehouse one block up Main, approached Morell to see if she'd be willing to turn it into a weekly project.

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