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As a youth Cunningham moved often; he took piano lessons and got into country music, watching Hee-Haw "religiously" and listening to Kenny Rogers and T.G. Sheppard. One of his piano teachers was a young, hip guy who would regale him with tales of the rock band the teacher was in.
"All of a sudden, it dawned on me," Cunningham relates. "I could play...so I could be in a band." In eighth grade he went out for football, working out religiously and developing a love of both the Rocky series and the band Survivor, which led him to pop acts like Steve Miller and Lionel Richie. Football, however, was not to last. "I wanted to be accepted," Cunningham remembers. "I was kind of a nerd back then, and I got kicked around a lot. That's why so many of my songs are about junior high, because I loved that time and I also hated it...I was too scared to fight, and I wanted to get girls but didn't know how." At the same time that he started freshman football, he got into the school jazz band. Then there came a revelation, and football was out the door for good: "There was this girl in my P.E. class who never really talked to me, but after [a jazz band concert] she came up and, like, wanted to hang out with me." His face mimics the turning on of a light bulb. "It was like, 'Girls get impressed when you play.'"
After that it was Triumph and Van Halen; Twisted Sister, Ozzie, and Rush. Although his family was very religious--Cunningham has attended more than his share of youth seminars on backward masking and the evils of rock in general--he was hooked, although at the time "[Black] Sabbath scared me," he says. When the family moved to San Antonio, that town's metal-friendly atmosphere was just what Cunningham needed; he joined a few bands. (He is featured on one of his first tapes doing a quite credible cover of idol David Lee Roth's "Yankee Rose," every vocal histrionic lovingly reproduced.) Although still "really into church" and very much a fan of Christian metal band Stryper, he played in bands that were covering the likes of Iron Maiden.
He decided to attend the University of North Texas as a composition major. It was a time of both great discovery and disappointment. "I got burned out on playing the piano literally all the time," he says now, "and they were always telling me that I wasn't playing it right." But he was also discovering bands like the Butthole Surfers and They Might Be Giants, and then he met the late Avon Gillespie, a UNT prof who was "one of those rare magical people; we called him Mr. G., but he was always Mr. Magic to me. He had men's chorus," Cunningham recalls, "which most profs thought of as a joke--rockers who couldn't sing--but Mr. G. loved the idea...He made us dance and do all sorts of crazy stuff."
"Mr. G. always talked about the schmaltz," Cunningham explains, "the entertainment value of a song, and he turned me on to the fact that people want to see a show; you can sing on key and everything, but people want to be entertained, too." Mr. G. took the chorus to a Brave Combo show once--he was always doing stuff like that--and the eclectic band did a samba version of the Exorcist theme that blew Cunningham's mind. "Before, when I was into metal and people would say stuff like 'David Byrne is a genius,' I'd be like, 'What the fuck?'...That night I finally realized what they meant." The education of Jon Cunningham--and the gestation of Corn Mo--had begun.
He and a group of friends formed the Flying Couch Potato Review, featuring a lot of juggling, fire-eating, and clowning and providing Cunningham with an outlet for the "dumb songs" like "The Baloney Song" that he'd compose in the shower. The group's shows were bizarre: Cunningham would sing his "My Epilady" ("It hurts me when I shave") while another member read the Communist Manifesto out loud and the audience bombarded the Review with wads of crumpled paper. "It was just dumb college stuff," Cunningham allows. "Just people thinking that they're clever."
But it was the place where Cunningham's idea of doing "post-modern vaudeville" was born, and when he hooked up with Scott Webb and formed the duo Corn Mo (the name comes from one of Cunningham's rotisserie league pitchers) and Mauve Oed (for Oedipus), that idea became an actual process that could be worked on. The two became street musicians, learning how to stake out a spot, attract attention, and create a vibe while working a crowd.
It was a period that saw Cunningham getting more into music: "We were a serious joke band," he maintains. "I was writing songs with an almost [Winnie the] Pooh-like whimsicality, but there was always a serious side to them...But the only way I could address that was to make a joke out of it; otherwise I was afraid that people wouldn't like it.