Possessed by Paul James is Moved by the Spirits of Music and Family

Possessed by Paul James
Possessed by Paul James Photo by Louis Amstoy, courtesy of Konrad Wert
Konrad Wert is a family man, so much so that there’s a nod to his father and grandfather in the name of his act, Possessed by Paul James. Onstage, the Kerrville-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is a one-man wonder. But his family helped shape his style of folk and bluegrass music and continues to provide the foundation for his work in the music industry.

Wert brings his show to the Houston area this weekend for a pair of dates, Friday January 27 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck and Saturday January 28 at Old Quarter Acoustic Café in Galveston.

Wert is happy to return to the area and told us by phone this week touring recently has come in fits and starts. When he’s not performing songs for fans from nearly a half-dozen albums on banjo, guitar and fiddle, he’s a special education teacher in Kerrville.

“Typically, I’ve always been teaching. Like, I’ll retire as a teacher. But I took the year off in 2015 to play with the family and we just taught our kids on the road and lived on the road in our Winnie. And then, last year, post-COVID, we had a release in ’20 right as COVID hit. You know, one of those coincidences. We still wanted to promote that record from ’20, so I took a year off last year. And then our boy got sick. That’s what’s been so crazy about this year.”

Wert said his 14 year-old son Jonah was diagnosed with long COVID and has been working through its challenges. He said he was in Belgium when his wife Jenny called concerned about their son and he left the tour straight away to get home to his family. At the time, he was about 10 days into a two-month tour, but the family took precedence, of course.

That’s also a reason he’s stood with one foot on the ground in teaching and the other on music’s odd terrain. Possessed by Paul James has earned some accolades since Wert started the act in 2005. It’s been a Billboard charting act and a critical darling in outlets like NPR, as well as an Independent Music Award winner. Wert’s story’s been told on film, in a documentary titled When It Breaks. But he’s got an album called Feed the Family, so it’s clear why he’s never fully left the day job.

“They supported one another,” he said of his two pursuits. “Longevity in teaching now is not a norm. You still meet your teacher buddies that are at a retirement age, they’re in their sixties or late fifties if they started really early. But that generation is retiring. It’s interesting to see a new generation of teachers, and to sustain yourself you’ve got to find outlets because the dynamic is so different, the ratios are so different, the expectations are very different.

“Logistically, the metrics of it, we needed to earn income, more than a teacher’s income, to raise a family of three at the time,” he continued. “That continued to be the recipe when we had Kai, our second. It was more functional for me to work two jobs – teach full-time and play.”

Wert took shows where he could find them along the way, playing happy hour gigs and even grocery stores.

“We created a balance where I could still work, create a little bit of security, some additional income too. Both the boys were in school and then Jenny was able to do her painting more. She’s a painter, she’s an artist,” Wert said. “Initially, it was just function. We needed to feed the family. That’s what it was.”

It’s blossomed into a lot more – several hailed, charting albums and a live set that’s so good it was once named to a New York Times best concerts list, right alongside Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder and Neil Young. The live set is how Possessed by Paul James came into this writer’s music sphere. At Chicago’s MoonRunner’s Music Festival, Wert’s solo show astounded onlookers. The music moved from tender moments to funny ones to explosive ones, and all those moments were imbued with skilled musicianship and compelling lyrics. The live show is really something to behold.

“I’ve been picking in Texas, where we have our feet on the ground, more since maybe 2015, 2016, where we could play in neighboring cities and still have a draw, where it’s worth the revenue and the travel and it’s good for the venues,” Wert said. “I don’t have big, big, big numbers. I’m always surprised when we get into three digits. That’s always like, ‘Ooh! Hot dog!’ But the nice thing is we have kind folks that come back and they appreciate the songwriting and the show.”

Part of the show’s appeal is how moved Wert seems to be by the music he’s performing. He said the spirit he feels while playing has its own familial origins.

“I’m 46, so I think about things like this a bit more, to try to understand why is this the way it is, and I know a theme I’ve always seen in musicians I connect with – like it or not, there’s sometimes music in the family or, in our case, church in the family, you know, a lot of gospel background, in our case the Mennonite background. Passion and music was already intertwined through the introduction of faith as a kid.

“We were kind of restricted in what we could have in the family, like to listen to secular music,” he said of his upbringing in the Mennonite church. “So I didn’t get exposed to it ‘til more like a high school kid and my buddies would listen to different stuff and I’d get exposed to different stuff. But then, I remember feeling a different element of passion that was beyond just a spiritual sense, where it was kind of maybe created.

“Where it was honed was, I heard music that had more rhythm and blues and soul, and then living up in Virginia — the Appalachia, the Shenandoah, started to get into the folk traditions, and that merged for me. So whenever people would really hit that note or if they would really find that melody or there’d just be some incredible harmony, I would just feel that.

“When music hits the right way, for whatever reason, it overpowers inside,” he said. “And then, when you can channel it – wow. Then the reverberation’s even greater. That’s probably generally when I close my eyes and just dive into it. Jenny, my wife, she’s like ‘You always look like you’re having such a great time,’ and for me I’m just lost in the music, having a wonderful time with the music.

“And then, there’s the interaction with the audience, to be like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re doing this together. This is cool.’ It really is a special thing. More so now because there’s just a lot of hardship right now as a family as we’re working to take care of our son.”

Wert said there’s progress in Jonah’s condition, but it’s been slow.

“There’s a lot to be thankful for, don’t get me wrong. It’s just another interesting journey as a family right now,” he said.

Family is the central theme of this interview and Wert’s life. It’s right in his band’s name, Possessed by Paul James – a nod to his grandfather Paul and his father Melvin James and his place in the Wert line as a father and husband. But he owes a lot of his musical interest to his mother.

“The music of the Mennonites – and I’ve always thought this was kind of romantic – for the longest time they would only sing acapella,” he said. “The majority of traditional Mennonite churches didn’t get pianos until the early ‘80s. In most Mennonite conferences it was like, no, we’re going to push that back. Even the instrument was seen in sin. It was associated with the world, the instrument was of the world so the instrument was a sin.

“This is traditional Mennonite, this isn’t more moderate Mennonite. Traditional Mennonite would say, ‘You only can praise and worship through the voice that God has given you.’ So that’s why four-part harmony is so strong in Mennonite tradition. You go to any Mennonite community across the country and somebody’s going to sing soprano, alto, tenor and bass. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

“That’s what first exposed me to music,” Wert said. “That was singing since I was a baby probably with my mom. She played piano in the church when the piano was brought to the church. She played guitar. That’s probably where I learned intonation. Half-step, whole step. And then when I was a fat little fourth grader, Mom said ‘You’re going to play the violin.’”

click to enlarge
PPJ's live show has been hailed by the New York Times
Photo by Louis Amstoy, courtesy of Konrad Wert

He laughed and shared how his mother now refutes his claim that she thrust the instrument on him, one which is featured prominently in is music and is very cool to see him play live. Soon, his live set will feature music from a new album. Titled Fighting for Our Own Survival, it’s slated for a summer 2023 release and a subsequent tour.

“The nice thing about it is we’ll do a nice album release in the Cincinnati area with the guys that we recorded the album with and that’s Joe Macheret and Sean Geil from the band The Tillers, out of Cincinnati. They’re dear friends of ours and the three of us got together in the studio and just had a wonderful time of throwing down music and, lo and behold, we create a record. And man, I really love it.”

The plan is to start releasing singles around April or May leading up to the full release. As an independent artist Wert gets to call a lot of the shots about his career.

“It’s always been about the balance and that’s probably the biggest reason why we’ve never jumped into looking at maybe more promising record opportunities, ‘cause when you jump into that you’ve really got to commit to playing 150 shows a year. So, independent still works for us. It’s still functional, it still goes directly to our audience base, it still goes directly to our family. It’s good that way,” he said.

“In no way am I trying to sound self-righteous, but I think what’s hard is this demand that music can create and it puts you in the crossroads of what matters more to you. It’s not just the elements of what the music trade provides – audience, and all this attention and people giving you complements every night for a job that, in essence, is the same as what we all do, just trying to pay the bills and take care of the family. That’s a very strange job where people are always complementing you at your job. People don’t do that to me as a schoolteacher.

“In (music), that’s the case, and I think it really twists your perspective of what is maybe best or what matters most. It’s been interesting as a family to kind of find that journey and really just remind one another what matters most. And that’s why I think we just continue this balance, until the kids are out of high school and then Jenny and I have more free time. But until they’re not living under our roof, this is what feels right for us.”

Possessed by Paul James performs the late show at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck,  2425 Norfolk, at 9:30 p.m. Friday, January 27. $30-$120.
Also, at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 28, at the Old Quarter Acoustic Café, 413 20th Street, Galveston. $20-$25.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.