It was 1994 when Konrad Wert ’01 arrived at Eastern Mennonite University for the first time, and he didn’t stay long. Iffy about college from the start, he left after his freshman year for a voluntary service term in Washington D.C. Once that ended, he returned to EMU, stayed a bit, then departed again to volunteer in California.
A yo-yo pattern was developing.
“I just didn’t feel like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, so I would drop out,” says Wert, who went on to spend time in South Texas and Central America during subsequent dropouts from college.
But Wert couldn’t quite shake EMU altogether. A 1996 cross-cultural to Ghana blew his eyes wide open. He made some close friends, got involved in peace and justice activism on campus, and was inspired by a handful of professors who raised provocative, poignant questions about what it meant to be Mennonite (he was raised in a Mennonite family and congregation in Florida).
By 2001, Wert had cobbled together enough credits to graduate with a liberal arts degree and a slew of minors, including one in music. As a freshman, he’d considered studying viola performance. By his super-super-super senior year, he was playing genre-bending shows around campus and Harrisonburg with The Red Wagon Band, alongside classmates Trent Wagler ‘02, Jaime Miller ‘01, and Nick Hurst ’01.
Fittingly, music will bring Wert back to campus once more on Saturday, Jan. 17, for an 8 p.m. concert at EMU’s MainStage Theater. He performs manic, foot-stomping folk, country and Americana music as a one-man band under the name Possessed by Paul James.
The wanderlust that kept interrupting Wert’s college studies didn’t end with college. After graduation, he and his wife, Jenny, moved to New Mexico, then Texas. They lived in Maine for a time, then in Colorado, then back to Texas when their first son was born, to be closer to family. During that nomadic phase, Wert had mainly worked in the nonprofit world. After returning to Texas, he became a teacher – a career direction in which he’d always felt pulled. He is now a special education teacher at Curington Elementary School in Boerne, Texas.
Wert has been playing as Possessed by Paul James since 2006. He’d played a few dozen shows a year and thought it would always just be a side project. But then, to his surprise, his most recent album – There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely – made a run on the Americana/Bluegrass Billboard charts (peaking at #12 in November of 2013). The following spring, Wert was featured on NPR, and at the end of 2014, a New York Times critic included a Possessed by Paul James show on a list of 2014’s ten best concerts.
“We were kind of dumbstruck with what the attention has been this past year,” says Wert. (It wasn’t the first time attention has been paid, though; Wert was featured in a 2008 documentary, The Folk Singer, by Slowboat Films, and a previous album, Feed the Family, won an Independent Music Award in 2011 for Best Alt Country Album.)
Wert’s friends from EMU who have followed his music are less surprised by the critical praise.
“Konrad is pure energy, pure heart,” says former bandmate Trent Wagler, who now fronts the widely acclaimed Americana band, The Steel Wheels. “I have never been around a more passionate performer or artist. He is an inspiring, creative force.”
Professor Ted Grimsrud recalls Wert’s large impact on EMU “with his energy, commitment to peace, and outsized personality.”
“He plays with a joyful, soulful intensity. His stage name, Possessed by Paul James, indicates something of his out-of-left-field sensibility. Konrad does his music his way, following his own muse. It’s exciting to see him meet with success.”
As that musical success grows, Wert finds himself confronted with decisions about the future. He loves teaching, even though he gets “real rowdy” about the unrealistic demands placed on teachers and public schools across the country, and the growing gap between what’s needed in schools and the resources allocated to them – topics that find their way into much of his songwriting.
(Wert has also been recognized for his work in the classroom, having recently been named Teacher of the Year at his school.)
He and his wife have two sons now, ages 4 and 6, and the family loves to travel. Every summer they load up the van and wander. The recent success of Possessed by Paul James has them wondering whether they could wander more full-time from show to show, visiting schools along the way to perform, talk, listen and stay engaged.
“If you leave [education], you kind of give up on the process of changing it,” Wert says. “And if you stay in it, you internalize it, and it can make the quality of life pretty hard.… It’s hard to find a balance where you’re passionate and positive day after day after day.”
Maybe Wert’s unexpected recent musical success will offer a shot at that sort of balance, though there are lots of “ifs” to figure out. Wert and family are looking at Winnebagos, thinking about their next adventure. Wert plays a show in Washington D.C. on Friday evening. Then it’s back once more to EMU on Saturday and quickly away again for class on Monday. The future is uncertain, exciting, but for now there are still lessons to plan and progress reports to write.
Published January 2015.