“Feed the Family” by Possessed by Paul James
If I were to make a list of the twenty most important singer/songwriters of our time, John Konrad Wert, better known under the moniker Possessed by Paul James, would undoubtedly be among those at the very top, if not the topmost artist. That is taking into account his powerful live performances and his available recorings, including his latest album on Hillgrass Bluebilly Records titled “Feed the Family.” Though a bit more polished in terms of production than Wert’s previous recording endeavors, “Feed the Family” still has all of the raw, primal, soulful, and from-the-gut folk and blues elements we have come to expect from him. Of course, it is not just this one release that makes me consider Wert one of the most important singer/songwriters of our time; it’s that he is in fact a master songsmith who, with little more than a few notes, the stomping of his foot, and his strong voice, can whip a song up into a sweaty frenzy of musical genius, making one’s heart pound just a little faster and one’s head spin just for the listening. It’s not just the frantic dexterity with which he plays his acoustic guitar, banjo and fiddle, but the wild passion with which he pushes forth his crazy vocals, with grunts, yelps, growls, a bit of crooning, and so many tremulous utterances, at times so absorbed in the song that he unleashes lines of unintelligible lyrics in fits of intense delivery almost as thought he’s…well, a man possessed. This is typical of Wert’s live shows, where he is decidedly at his best. After all, he is definitely one of those singer/songwriters who are meant to be seen live, preferably at a smoky rundown dive off of some long stretch of country road, where the smell of stale beer and humanity permeates the room, where there are just as many cowboy hats as baseball caps being worn, where beautiful women whisper to one another in dim corners, where thrilled audiences watch the shows, and where the finest bands and singer/songwriters pass through.
When it is time for John Konrad Wert to take the stage he is not only playing a bunch of songs for the audience, he is turning himself inside out, revealing himself as human beings seldom do. It is apparent that he is doing it just as much for himself as for the people who have come to see him play. He is exorcising his demons. He is facing the things that trouble his soul and haunt his mind and break his heart. He is overcoming something…quite possibly himself, among other things. He is rejoicing and lamenting in turns. He is experiencing the transcendence that only comes through song. It’s the great resounding hallelujah of life. It’s the religion of love, as love drives this man. It’s the song. In a magnificent blur of sound and movement, you see him transform right before your eyes from a man into a song. The song pulls you in, makes you part of it. You are also part of his congregation, not as a follower but an equal, a man or woman invited to feel the song as he feels it, to rejoice and lament with him. It is real life music, which is truly hard to come by these days.
While Wert presently resides in Boerne, Texas with his wife and son, he was born into a world quite different from the one he has known for much of his adult life. In the swamps of Immokalee, Florida, John Konrad Wert entered the world. As the son of a Mennonite Amish family he didn’t receive much influence from the outside world…that is, not until he went off to college, where he received a grant and traveled to North Africa to study art and music. At that point he really began to open his eyes to the world outside of the church in which he came up. Having returned to the states, Wert moved around from city to city, busking for nickels and dimes here and there. But it wasn’t until he met his wife-to-be, while he was living in a van in New Mexico, that the songs that had been taking shape inside of him began really pouring forth. Later, using significant names from his family tree — his grandfather’s name (Paul) and his father’s middle name (James) — Wert developed the moniker Possessed by Paul James, which he first used in 2005 at a little underground gig in Austin. Since then he has toured extensively and shared the stage with some of the most notable of today’s bands and singer/songwriters. He has also worked with Shake Your Ass Records and Voodoo Rhythm on past releases. These days, as a new father, Wert has considerably shortened the range of his touring circuit, opting to stay close to home and rarely leaving Texas and the surrounding states.
Since receiving my copy of “Feed the Family” I have listened to it all the way through several times. Truthfully, I cannot get enough of it. My song preferences on the album are “Four Men from the Row,” “Feed the Family,” “Shoulda’ Known Better,” “Texas Rose,” and “Color of My Bloody Nose,” though I consider them all valuable contributions to the music of today.
If you would like to get an in-depth look at John Konrad Wert (a.k.a. Possessed by Paul James), both the artist and the man, you could always go to the Slowboat Films website and watch the documentary titled The Folk Singer. Truth be told, it’s a very powerful film, full of highway philosophy, friendship, emotional and spiritual struggle, personal demons, faith, social and political commentary, and above all the music. In the filmmaker’s own words, the film is A Tale of Men, Music & America. And that is indeed what it is. Much of the film is centered on Wert’s inner turmoil at the imminent arrival of the baby boy with which his wife was pregnant at the time, being torn between continuing to follow the path of music or embracing the nine to five nightmare of the workaday world. To be sure, a more conventional lifestyle and profession would have aided him greatly in supporting his growing family. But at what cost? You see, there is little doubt in my mind that Wert was meant to write and play the songs he has given the world so far, and to have stopped at that point would have been akin to a sort of death of the soul, as well as a funeral for the muse that had served him so well over the years. As we can tell from the release of “Feed the Family,” he is still at it, still making music for a world that needs it just as much as he himself needs it. He is evidently compelled to take this thing all the way, to follow the path that has been laid before him. Throughout the film Wert also meets up with some very notable singer/songwriters of the folk, blues and rock’n’roll underground, such as Scott H. Biram, Tom VandenAvond, Reverend Deadeye, and Ghostwriter. One of the songs on Wert’s new album was recorded during the filming of The Folk Singer, “Oh to Rhythm,” and one can actually hear the running water of a nearby river under the music, which only enhances the rootsy field recording sound of the song. All in all, The Folk Singer by Slowboat Films’ M.A. Littler is a must see for folk and blues music enthusiasts, as well as those who are as utterly confounded by the human condition as the rest of us. I assure you, you will not walk away unaffected by it.
As a music writer, this is probably the most biased piece you are likely to see from me. Music is wholly subjective, though. It is not like reporting on economics or the weather. There’s nothing superficial about it. You cannot stick to the facts, since it’s not so much about factual things as it is about the things we feel, the things that moves us, the things that speak to that innermost part of our beings that knows certain pieces of music to be ineffably important and meaningful. And personally, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where that wasn’t the case.