By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Corn Mo had just regaled TRL's viewing audience with his passionate rendition of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine"--delivered without hesitation or irony. Earlier that day, one of the show's staff had spotted Corn Mo in Times Square just after he'd retrieved his instrument from a nearby repair shop. "Is that an accordion?" the guy asked. "Yup," said Corn Mo, and was thus invited onto MTV's set to do the impromptu performance. The kids loved it.
"Come back tomorrow," they said, "and play us some Limp Bizkit."
Corn Mo, no stranger to metal, nonetheless had to purchase the band's Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water to learn its single, "Rollin'." It just wasn't his territory.
"The album's awful!" he says over a beer in a Brooklyn bar. "I wanted to like it, but I couldn't. I like Kid Rock a lot, though." He tells this story with a kind of polite, measured formality: few tangents, no added color. And no twinge of surprise that he, a 32-year-old accordion-playing singer-songwriter who got his start in Denton, should find himself at the center of MTV's most mainstream, teen-pandering show.
Was it his 15 minutes? Nah. He's just getting started.
It's a good time for Jon "Corn Mo" Cunningham. Even the most discriminating audiences are losing interest in thought-provoking artiness as they rediscover the joys of pure entertainment: Track down those old Cheap Trick and KISS albums, watch lots of Jackass and admit anticipation for the next Lord of the Rings installment. After all, we're at war now (sort of), and in recession, so don't make us so headachy with more bad news: Here we are now, entertain us. Which is where Corn Mo (flowing blond mane, operatic pipes, brazenly protruding beer belly) comes in.
"Hi! I'm Corn Mo!" he yells from a stage in a big New York nightclub. It's his CD release party, and he's planned a guest-packed variety show: comedians, cabaret acts, a trapeze artist. A lot of his friends are circus performers (more on that in a moment), and the night unfolds with high gasps and low, long laughs; everyone is enthralled. When Corn Mo finally takes the stage for his night-capping set, the crowd yells his name repeatedly and sings along with his shout choruses: "I am not your Gary Busey boy/No! No! No!" Just before he plays "Shine On, Golden Warrior," a soaring tribute to Kevin Von Erich, the last living member of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty, the crowd watches a projected film clip of an old wrestling match with bemused reverence. Corn Mo really cares about this stuff, so hey, let's care with him tonight.
This is Corn Mo enjoying the liberation and tradition of Big Apple showmanship. Unconventional talent? Bring it on.
"I love it here," he says. Back in the Brooklyn bar, he's explaining why he's handled the transition from Texas to New York so smoothly. "New York is more open-minded. I've got it easier than a lot of people. I have friends, I have a job when I need it, I have a nice place to live."
He alternates jobs, in fact; since moving to Brooklyn in the spring of 2001, he's spent chunks of time touring as a circus MC and music accompanist. And however surreal his circus connections seem to us civilians, it sounds natural enough coming from the mouth of a born performer. It was a member of the Bindlestiff Family Circus, a small New York-based troupe, who caught his show in Dallas and encouraged him to move north. He's toured with the group and worked with them "on a Wild West show that had a long theater run. I wrote songs for it with Todd Deatherage"--another D-FW-to-NYC musician--"and then I did a ringmaster gig in Alaska for a month, with the Circus Boreal."
This subject warms him up a bit. Now he'll tell little stories that finish in exclamation points: what it was like to camp in a trailer parked outside Anchorage ("Cookouts every night!"), doing tent shows ("It was fun to watch my language around the families!"). Then he toured Europe with a juggling/comedy act called Planet Banana, which in the end picked up some good reviews at Edinburgh's notorious Fringe Festival. Throughout, he's found kindred spirits: an Argentinean gaucho act; a seventh-generation clown; a lovely aerialist named Una, for whom he's written an ethereal theme song. "I like writing songs for other people. It's fun and it's easy--'Could you write a song about this?' Sure."
Then he adds, "The trap is doing it every night. You start getting bummed out."
Though he plans to continue working with his circus friends, he's currently focused on his own music. Corn Mo's other New York family is Denton's transplanted (and now defunct) Good/Bad Art Collective, and it was Chris Weber, the Good/Bad member in charge of the collective's many music benefits, who financed Corn Mo's new album, The Magic is You! The disc is Corn Mo's second full-length release, which he recorded in Texas with engineer (and the pAper chAse front man) John Congleton. (He says of his 2000 debut, I Hope You Win!: "I didn't like it much. It didn't show off what I could really do.")