Photos by George L. Blosser
By Kevin Alan Lamb
No matter the certainty of struggle that accompanies human flesh, stars will always shine through even the darkest of nights. Their luminescence is present without detection; like the goodness in your veins it prevails without recognition; like the righteousness in your soul it endures independent of measurement; like the overwhelming abundance of courage in each and every heavy breath it offers hope in its absence. Goodness is abundant; but until we choose to recognize it in ourselves, we will continue to overlook it in the world around us. Those who commit to loving themselves, pursuing their passion, and the citizen he or she is capable of becoming, will blaze a trail for others who seek the path of righteousness.
Too soon we forget that we only live one life; who are we to live free of the world’s weight on our shoulders; its weight on our heart? It is the journey through the depths of darkness that inspire awe as we bask in the euphoric glow of the sun on our face atop the mountain they said couldn’t be climbed; or at least not by the likes of you.
Great books that tell the stories of better men and women are not written about those who stumble from man to majesty overnight. Our souls cannot be taxed, gain interest, or be deterred: but our souls can be measured by an enduring spirit that claws, scratches, and fights its way from worn knees to two feet, standing before the world, accepting nothing short of another breath lived in pursuit of love, excellence, and even the smallest chance to leave behind a story of our own that inspires a better world; inspires a soul broke and beaten by another man’s conception of what this life ought to be.
John Konrad Wert was raised in Southwestern Florida, by a family of devout Mennonites, who instilled in him a fervently burning flame and purposefulness to combat the pervading darkness which casts its shadow upon us all. Mennonites are a Christian sect similar to the Amish who stress simplicity, pacifism, and community service. His father Mel was a preacher and teacher, while his mother Dotty on occasion would play piano in church.
When Konrad takes the stage he is a man possessed. He blesses each soul fortunate enough to have ears to listen, eyes to see, and a beating-heart to feel the supernatural sensation of song-induced-ecstasy. Husband to Jenny, father to Jonah and Chai, Konrad deposits a piece of his heavy-heart into each and every performance as medicine to heal all those who seek his light. His gifts are grand and without ego. They will touch the tips of your eyelids and manifest as tears that trickle down your cheek, each time you recite his lyrics, and feel his spectrum of emotion poured into every inflection. It is both a privilege and an honor to be Possessed by Paul James, and I am grateful to take up arms with a star so bright, in our fight to combat the wicked and desperate; our fight to embrace the weight it takes to free a people divided and devoured by sin and suffering; our fight to illuminate the corners of this Earth where darkness has long loomed and consumed without deterrent.
You heal people with your efforts; how did you get drawn into that as a teacher?
“It’s not purposeful to heal necessarily… it’s a little more selfish on my end… it’s healing me to release all the frustrations from teaching.”
You could have taught anyone, and anything: how did you choose special education?
“My first teaching gig was at 19, up in DC in Anacostia, Southeast D.C. a non-profit. I was fairly naive, a little white boy, but the way we grew up in Immokalee (Florida), my dad was a Pasteur teacher, my mom was a nurse. It was engrained that life has to be purposeful, and it seems purposefulness is set by helping people. People that have less. We have a lot, ethnically, culturally, compared to others we have a lot.”
Are you ready for the world to start appreciating teachers more, who are shaping our youth?
“Yeah, some of the push is, yes we want to break from what we’re doing as a family, and yes we want to try and do music and art, but also we want to see if we can make that into a national conversation. Because when you’re a teacher within the district you’re held to the parameters within the district and state. The district might be a great district, the state may be a great state, but regarding what you want to advocate for, you can’t really because then you’re putting yourself at odds with your district. We’d like to say ok, we’re parents now, I’m still a licensed teacher for another six years, so how can we make this conversation effective. When will legislature realize you have to either raise taxes to put more good teachers in the classroom settings, or cut other state funding so you prioritize education? And I don’t mean salaries, I mean teachers, in my opinion, we only work nine months out of the year, we get to work with kids, it’s hard, but there’s a different element than my construction jobs, or my trade jobs, there is a lot more play in education. I mean specifically, hire more people to help kids that are in the crack. If they would just do that, I’m not trying to be presumptuous, but I can only hope and imagine that we’d see less school shootings, and less children not being diagnosed appropriately when they’re struggling with mental health and emotionally disturbed behaviors. Those children get the intervention they need, they find a loving adult that really wants that child to succeed. How do we make that a flag, that we fly as a family as we’re driving in a Winnebago, coast to coast? Otherwise, it doesn’t feel purposeful. We want it to have more value than just an adventure.”
After completing the 2012 school year, Konrad was awarded “Teacher of the Year” honors in his first year in a new district at Curington Elementary School, in Boerne, Texas. Konrad often brings his viola and banjo into the classroom to help his students with physical disorders bridge brain-and-body connections. The bearded folksinger relates connecting with a child to the rapport he forges with the audience on stage. It is an intimate, trusted, and vulnerable space that requires reciprocity and attention to detail. By volunteering his vulnerability in both the classroom and on stage, Konrad practices servitude and bestows his humble offerings to mend the fracture hidden beneath the surface of us all. As a result of insufficiently funded Life Skills programs, Konrad spends thousands of dollars out of pocket for class materials each year.
We will grow together if we look to one another when it feels like we should crawl in a hole and die. Time, like your heart will keep ticking so do not fear being defeated, we all are; a soul is measured in the moments after absorbing a crushing blow, and the moments after that. While there must be a delicate balance between action and belief to move mountains, belief will ensure fuel runs through your bones until they crumble. Man’s greatest and most distinctive attribute is heart: courage in the face of certain peril: the ability to abandon reason and triumph over unbeatable odds.“
Among my favorite things about you, I know you were doing music kinda on the side, then all of a sudden you had an album that was charting, and you saw the way people were responding… talk me through the difference between getting by and surviving with music, then seeing it as something that could thrive?
“The intent wasn’t for it to be a trade; the intent was to see how could Jenny and I find a good balance between being parents and still feeling like our spirit was fed. It’s tricky, because children are an incredible thing, but what changes drastically is the way you live your life for the provision of your sweeties, and I think as parents we’re scared to take too many risks because we don’t want those risks to fail and have our children subjected to those choices. Now, there’s somewhat of a structure to the music and playing shows; we feel more confident that ‘hey we can try,’ and Jenny is a wonderful painter so we can balance that off. So I’ll just say luck, by accident, with a collective group of friends and musicians we came up with a good album that got more attention than we anticipated, and that lead into, maybe we do this for the sake of our family, because we want them to have more of a life than just, wake up and go to school, wake up and go to work, then 15 years fly by and we all say life flies by, and it flies by because we don’t take the risk or we don’t pay attention. Jenny and I don’t want that. We didn’t have Jonah and Chai to say ‘life flies by,’ we had Jonah and Chai to say ‘what a great day that was’.”
Do Jonah and Chai play music?
“They do. They are six and four, so their music equivalent is thrashing on a banjo. They’re really rhythmic boys, great dancers, Jonah likes to make up songs, he won’t necessarily have a point, he will be like, ‘The bear walks out, then the bear goes to the tree, and the bear likes honey, and I like honey,’ and it’s just a run on sentence, but they both engage in music in a lovely way.”
What was that first show or concert that you played, that you realized you were given gifts for a certain reason, and it’s having an effect on the world?
“Maybe playing with Jenny, my wife.”
“She sings, she’s a great singer. We haven’t figured out how to sing and play together, but she responded really strongly to the music. And that’s probably what brought the attraction on. From there, I started playing open mics, so I played to Jenny then we started playing out.”
How old were you when you started writing?
“Ohhh, well see I was a fat kid, so fat kids write early. I probably started writing when I was 11.”
Were you an athlete?
“I had to be to lose the weight. I was like 260 lbs. when I was 13, and I was 5-foot-9. They tried to put me in wrestling and I got my but kicked because they put me with the heavyweights, and I was the 13-year-old with 18-year-olds who was 260 lbs. of muscle. So I got to football to lose the weight, so I could maintain my health.”
Before I ever met you, my Bosnian roommate, who left Bosnia because of genocide, and then lived in Germany, came here and years later introduced me to your music… We have the same lyrics tattooed on us, by the same artist, without meaning to do so, “Where you invest your love, you invest your life” by Marcus Mumford. She is the reason I fell in love with your music and drove to see you in Indiana, and see you perform “Heavy”, it stays with us, it’s our get me through anthem. What’s your “Heavy”, what is your North Star, a reminder to have a productive response to struggle?
“Richie Havens (January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013) man. He did a lot of covers, didn’t really write a lot. People know Richie Havens the most for opening up Woodstock. African American guy, he’s passed away now, I hope I’m right about that, that would be horrible if I’m wrong, and if he’s not, hallelujah! He had the purest passion that I’ve seen as a musician, especially as young man. I was 15 when I saw a music clip of him and I said ‘that’s what music is about.’ Definitely Richie Havens, I can say that without a doubt.”
If you could share the stage with any artist living or dead who would it be?
When you first saw us and our obnoxious crew with our Good Sign what did you think?
“Not obnoxious at all. Those are good people. They are friendly people. I knew you before, through social media, but I knew the reference of Good Sign, and when I started researching it I was like, ‘that’s a beautiful and simple premise.’ And correct me if I’m wrong, but what I see is, a reminder to be open to one another, have a conversation, don’t always feel threatened. And there’s some privileges there; there’s privileges because we’re white, we gotta own that. It’s different when you’re a minority within an ethnic group, I’ve seen that living in DC, I’ve lived in areas where when you become the minority the dynamic is very different. But with the opportunities you’re given you’re trying to make things better, not take advantage of the opportunities. That means something.”
We walked into Union City Indiana, and it was like Sons of Anarchy, everybody had giant beards and leather cuts, and I walk in with my suspenders and my snow pants, and everyone knew we were a little different, but by the end of the night they got it, and loved us, and they feel it right?
“That’s the problem about scenes, visually they look like very exclusive scene, but you get past that surface and realized everyone is really here to love one another.”
We talk about moral exclusivity, only because everyone is invited but not everyone necessarily does what it takes to stick around. Your music is that; this is for everybody; you might not feel this, but this is for everybody.
“It’s meant to be that way. It really is. Rich guy, poor guy, person of color, person of non-color. Man a woman. We want it to be that way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it falls flat. Tonight it was a little flat, but then it came.”
I believe in achieving a critical mass, and tipping points, the same way the Good Sign is, and you’re there… New York Times said you’re one of the best performers of 2014, what’s your biggest fear at this point?
“I don’t want to make any choices with music that would hurt us as a family. Whether it’s time, or whatever. I don’t want to not to be able to try to do this. You get older, your body changes, your throat changes. You’re trying to learn how to take care of health. I want the boys to appreciate it and not feel like, ‘Dad you’re always playing music’. So that’s why we’re talking about all together.”
If you had come and went and someone was talking about you at your funeral, what would you want them to say? What’s important to you? What’s real?
“Ahh jeees. Regardless of the flaws, we’re all very flawed… You want to be better than who you really are. The people who love you the most generally know how wicked you are. So I try to be not nearly as wicked as I really am. You make mistakes everyday, and you piss off the people you love the most, but at least, you still gotta try. You can’t accept your wickedness and say the hell with everybody. That’s not beneficial. You gotta try to make better choices with your spouse and best friends, and children, and hopefully you can achieve that. All we can do is try.”
Your label is Hillgrass Bluebilly, I know it’s a friends and family operation, tell me a little bit about that?
“Keith (Mallette) and Ryan (Tackett) started it up back in 2005, I was fortunate enough to hang out with them, we played a show out in Phoenix, and we’ve been pals ever since. I wouldn’t be playing if it wasn’t for them, I’d just be chillin.”
Struggle is one of the few constants in this amazing thing called life, however, despite being constant, it is inconsistent and comes in waves. When listening to Possessed By Paul James I am reminded on a cellular level that I am good, people are good, and troubled times reveal a window for darkness to cast its shadow upon each and every one of us. In times of despair we must discover courage in the hands, hearts, and homes of those we love and trust, so they made lead us back into the light.
Throughout my journey the darkness of night has tested my fortitude and called question to my perceived righteousness; some of which nights I had no answers or rationalizations for the man I was or wasn’t. It is on these nights when I turn to the music of a man who I now consider family. It is on these nights, when I’m lonely; when I can’t quite find the strength to bear the great weight of the world on my chest and shoulders alone, that I must be Possessed By Paul James. He gives me courage when I am weak. He gives me breath when it is fleeting. He gives me the very things I believe he is seeking for himself, his family, his students, and each soul who fills the seats before his stage. Listen to his music and you will be reminded that you belong. Listen to his lyrics and discover bravery buried beneath all of your fear and doubt. Listen to his heartbeat and don’t be surprised when you discover that it sounds the same as your own. Listen to his gospel and when you are lost, let his love, light, and passion guide you home.