“Cornstalk Pony” Words & Music by Kim Person, Lana Puckett & Steve Gillette
A few years back, I had the opportunity to teach a class in songwriting at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina. It’s a week-long camp with many classes with instruction on instruments and story-telling and vocal styles. In my class I met Kim Person and Lana Puckett, who had been collaborators for some time and had written many very fine songs.
One that particularly caught my ear was “Cornstalk Pony.” First, I thought that the device of the kids using corn stalks as pretend ponies to support their imaginary cowboy adventures was endearing. Also, the songwriters had blended cowboy lore with a sense of looking back, a little poignantly at how the world has changed since those innocent days.
In her song “The Circle Game,” Joni Mitchell has the insightful line, “Your dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.” And while most of us can’t celebrate many dreams come true, we can all recognize the ways that the world has changed and the loss of innocence as we’ve taken on the responsibilities of grown-ups.
The song stayed with me, and I wrote to Kim and Lana after a couple of years, as I remember it, to ask if anything had happened with the song and how they might feel about letting me take a hand in creating my own version. I was pleased to hear that they welcomed my taking some time with it and to see if we might collaborate on a better prospect for the life of the song.
This version of the song is from my album called Texas & Tennessee, available from our online store here. That CD was my attempt to capture the impressions from my childhood of the ‘heroes of the old West’ as the announcers used to say. The idea received a boost when I was first invited to the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1984, and got to spend time with some of the great Texas songwriters, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Fromholz, Mike Williams and John Ims.
My brother, Jeff was ten years younger than me, so we didn’t have that little kid, ‘buckaroo’ time together. But as he grew up and grew into playing music, we played a lot of music together and eventually had a band with Wayne Hartel playing bass, and Rey Castillo playing drums.
I was glad to be able to take Jeff and Wayne and Rey to Kerrville the next couple of years. We also got to play in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Gruene Hall and many other places of legend on our swing to Nashville and places in the East.
Nashville has always been a fascination as well as a marketplace of dreams. Again, some coming true, and some losing a little grandeur as the reality of the music business tempers the work and the reward. Still we had some fabulous times.
It was several years later that I had the chance to record “Cornstalk” in the legendary studio that was built by Jack Clement and then became the house that Allen Reynolds built with his unmatched string of hits with Crystal Gayle, Kathy Mattea, Waylon Jennings, Don Williams and Garth Brooks.
Pete Wasner conducted the session and played piano, Larry Atamaniuk played drums and Mark Schatz played bass on the basic tracks. I took the master tapes with me to several studios over the next few months as Pete Sutherland put some fiddle parts on, and my brother Jeff played the memorable lead guitar track.
It was Kim and Lana’s idea to use a little of the Sons of the Pioneers’ song “Cool Water” at the end of the recording, and Mike Williams arranged our version and sang several parts.
We lost my brother Jeff to cancer in 1995, and I’m so glad that we got to finish the album and that I can hear him playing lead guitar on those tracks. And, without putting too fine a point on it, “Cornstalk Pony” says so many things about brothers and pals, and that’s a dimension that is not lost on me as I listen to the CD today.
In organizing my thoughts for this article I went back to a piece I wrote about our band on a trip to Switzerland in the Spring of 1988, probably the high point of our time together as a band, and my musical life with Jeff as well.
Thom Wolke arranged for us to be on the bill of the Songwriter Festival in Frutigen, Switzerland, the same festival I had played the year before, and one that Cindy and I would perform for in two subsequent years. On this occasion I had been traveling in Europe and went to the airport in Zurich to meet the plane that would bring Jeff and Wayne and Rey in from New York.
The early train to the Flughaven got me there before 6:00 am. I was able to check my suitcase and guitar and explore. As some of the concessions opened, I got something to eat and was even able to get a shave from a coin operated electric shaver in the men’s room for one Swiss franc. A little after 10:00 AM the board showed that the plane from New York was on the ground and that after allowing for the better part of an hour for customs, I would be able to welcome three sleepy Californians to the splendor of the Swiss Alps.
It was a treat to see them become increasingly intrigued with each new unexpected difference in the way things are done in Europe. My night without sleep seemed a fair match to their jet lag and we alternated between periods of amazed excitement and lapses into torpor. As we began to ascend into the serious Alps at Thun just above Bern, there was no constraining the awe. I found it hard to suppress my enjoyment as they’d look at me as if I had created glaciers and chasms and waterfalls that drop away for a mile just for their benefit.
In Kandersteg we had rooms in a true four-star hotel. The food was astonishingly good. The view from every window was a poster, every room had a sitting room, every bed had one of those wonderful down comforters. Our host, Aschi Maurer, was assailed with applause and cheers when he walked into the dining room the first night to greet the thirty or so of us eating and sipping amazed and happy. I believe the German word for this condition is “gemutlich.”
I had been to the festival at Frutigen the previous year and remembered it as a pretty rowdy crowd of three thousand very well-oiled and expensively cowboy-costumed German and Swiss country music fans. I had described the proceeding as a cross between the Oktoberfest and a leather bar.
I was delighted to find so many changes and improvements Aschi had wrought in the intervening year. The festival was now called the International Singer-Songwriter Festival and many aspects; the house sound, the monitors, the instruments and amplifiers available to us on stage, had improved. The addition of a guitar and songwriting workshop, a commemorative belt buckle, and so many other small perquisites made for a real esprit de corps.
In an unexpected incident, a bull grazing in one of the beautiful meadows across from the hotel became entangled in the fence and found himself out in the middle of the one main road, a very dangerous situation. Fortunately he had a sense of humor and four of us were able to get him back on the ranch. It was as if he had been provided for one more touch of cowboy authenticity.
There was a strong sense of reunion with Tom Russell and Andy Hardin and the great guys in their band. It was so good to see Katy Moffitt, it was her brother Hugh’s first time at Frutigen, and seeing them together reinforced that sense of reunion. Rosie Flores and her band included our old friend Greg Liese.
The Good Old Persons were there. Steve Young was there too, and from Nashville, Tom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch and Craig Bickhardt and their strong band. Aschi’s son, Robert, had designed a beautiful poster for the festival and over the course of the following days I collected every signature I could, something I had never done before, although I have been in many situations where I wish I had.
Jeff Turner was there and the Kreuger brothers and some of the heavyweight radio and journalistic personalities like Chuck Steiner, the venerable voice of the Country Music Foderation Schweiz, Harry Purdy of the Canadian Armed Forces Radio, Walter Fuchs of Country Music Magazine and author of “Das Grosse Buch der Country Music” who was nice enough to include some of us who can’t even read it. Jurg Hofer, a Swiss radio journalist was there, as was Werner Munger from Swiss Radio BEO.
Our performance went very well. At first we hedged a bit by relying on a couple of never-fail oldies to help us with the crowd, but the audience was so enthusiastic and so much had been done to make this weekend a wonderful party for all, we felt comfortable being ourselves and were encouraged to do our own thing.
We were very well received, even surprising a few friends who had not heard the band. We did have a certain vital, if somewhat unrefined presence. Wayne and Rey’s energy and vocal integrity are great and my brother Jeff, in a way all his own, really gets himself out on the wire and is always emotionally present in his playing. I suppose he could be described as a sort of mercurial wizard doing his own thing on the guitar, always assertive.
Each night after the concert there was the traditional gathering at the hotel where we took turns around the circle and shared some of the more contemplative songs and a more intimate time. In the last concert there was a chance for all musicians and singers to gather on the stage for an extended jam. I remember drum solos from at least four different drummers, and a long and spirited version of “Irene Goodnight” and the image of a group of tearfully starry-eyed young girls singing along on their own approximation of the words, “Goodbye, Irene, goodbye, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.
Wayne and Rey and Jeff had never seen anything like it. They loved being at the festival and made lots of friends. I cringe to remember them speaking mock late-show movie German to waitresses and people who might not know how to take that sort of thing. But they had lots of adventures in the six days before we touched down at Kennedy, and Rey and Jeff went home to California and Wayne and I went on to the Kerrville Festival.
Here is the version that Cindy and I performed at the Cook Shack in Union Grove, NC:
Steve & Cindy perform "Cornstalk Pony.
And here is the video that Kim and Lana have made of the song:
Video of "Cornstalk Pony" by Kim Person & Lana Puckett
Here are the lyrics and chords to “Cornstalk Pony” as we sing it:
We never dreamed we’d live to see the fences close the range.
We never thought the wide open space would ever change.
Or that Cisco and Pancho would ever go their separate ways
Back in our cornstalk pony days.
Cornstalk pony, my faithful old friend
I can still feel your spirit, as strong as the wind.
And somewhere we’ll saddle up again, and ride off into the haze
Back in our cornstalk pony days.
Somewhere we’ll saddle up again, and ride off into the haze
Back in our cornstalk pony days.
© 1997, Compass Rose Music / Cimaron - Rainbird, BMI