Mo Better

Earlier this year, the folks at MTV's Total Request Live had one for Corn Mo: Play us a Limp Bizkit tune on your accordion.

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.")

For The Magic is You!, Corn Mo was thrilled to have access to a grand piano, which replaces his accordion on most of the album's 13 tracks. The piano lends appropriate gravity to his power ballads--"Goin' to LA," "I Wish You Were My Home"--which are direct tributes to Mötley Crüe's most sentimental moments. No chuckling please; he's serious. He's loved glammy hair metal since seventh grade, and he's never looked beyond it--to, say, navel-gazing indie rock, and certainly not dour, Bizkit-type moaners--for sincere inspiration. "David Lee Roth is the greatest," he insists.

Adolescent angst and snack foods are his favorite themes, sung about with the kind of athletic vibrato not heard since 1987. And he does so with the quiet awareness that others probably don't take this stuff so seriously; he senses that the squeak of a kazoo should counter his pathological obsession with theatrics. Magic boasts the kazoo, as well as the slide whistle, the New Year's Eve noisemaker, the washboard, the handclap--and that's just a start. Corn Mo uses this quirky soundscape to compose mini-anthems, heroic passages and chaotic polkas. If his spiritual father is Freddie Mercury, then his spiritual uncle is Tiny Tim.

Corn Mo's best Magic trick, however, may be his honesty, which is, in this order: jarring, poignant and very funny. The song "Robert Holiday" is about what happens when a really nice kid finally gets fed up with an annoying classmate ("His name is Robert, and he wishes too hard/His voice is too shrilly, and his wave is too large"). It's a slice of actual childhood, in the spirit of Matt Groening's "Life in Hell." Like this one, his songs sometimes contain conversations between two characters, which--when spoken-sung--sound so realistic it's downright voyeuristic. During performances, Corn Mo's between-song banter is gemlike in its clear-eyed observation. He explains things patiently: why the mall in Lewisville is better than Golden Triangle, or how bad it feels to be pelted by ice-throwing frat boys.

Those pensive moments ride a constant undercurrent of absurdity. One of the album's most satisfying songs, the already mentioned "Busey Boy" (about being mistaken for the actor Gary Busey), begins: "There was a young boy who put brown rice on his eyebrows and dried cranberries under his chin/Went to clubs and said, 'Hi, my name is Wild Rice, would you let me in for free?'/I said, 'There's no cover, you've got rice on your face...'"

It is, in fact, the track that best illustrates Corn Mo's ambition, if not his ultimate potential. The arrangement is denser, more intense and epic, and completely supports the inherent oddness of the lyrics. You want his weird world to expand, to take over, to explode. You start thinking, "What if this guy had at his disposal a full orchestra and a chorus?" Perhaps we'll see. He is, of course, also working on a rock opera.

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Christina Rees