Switching effortlessly between guitar, fiddle and banjo, one-man-band Possessed by Paul James is as raw as they come. Named for a combination of his grandfather, Paul Wert and his father, James, his music has an old-timey country vibrato, telling stories about 38-year-old cocktail waitresses, growing old, growing up, perfume letters, loving and losing. All the while the man behind the music, the whiskered faced work boot-wearing Konrad Wert is shouting, growling, and rasping spontaneously and unfettered—as if, you guessed it, possessed—sawing away on his instruments and stomping a piece of plywood with a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. His songs are repetitive in the best way, the structural way that makes you feel as if you've heard them all before. They're comforting and nostalgic and paint vivid portraits of every unanimously earth-shattering topic Wert poetically approaches.
His ripping fiddle is bloodshot, but never sloppy. Possessed by Paul James music could as easily be the soundtrack for the rocking party in the boat-basement in James Cameron's Titanic as a scene from a banal sepia-toned bar. His songs are true stories, true for someone, even if they're not the autobiography of the author himself.
"I think what's interesting with songwriting is you can tell elements of a personal story and incorporate broader issues," says Wert in an interview with the Source, in which he ended almost every thought with an enthusiastic, "Yeah, buddy." "It's a gambit about family, love, parenthood, loss, temptation, the universal struggles. Some songs cross the t and dot the i with personal experience. Others are observations of things close friends are going though. I don't distinguish which is which, what the song means to me. I don't want to have a spoiler on it."
Wert is not perfect or consistent, and that's the point. He doesn't write set lists or arrange songs precisely. The shows are unpredictable and swift, catching the edges of spontaneity and manufacturing a vigor that takes your heart out of your chest to swing it around the floor in a whirlwind three-step.
"Music is a social service," he says. "Sometimes it's to get ripped and obliterated and go ape-shit to have a good time, and other times it's to talk about serious concerns."
Which is a statement that makes sense when you understand that Wert is a special education schoolteacher in Texas, and has been flexing his social service muscles outside of music for 17 years in public education and nonprofit work. In fact, that career came long before music, but with recent success he is considering packing up the wife and 4 and 6-year-old sons and taking to the road full-time after this school year ends in June.
"We didn't anticipate the response to There Will Be Nights When I'm Lonely [PBPJ's 2013 full-length release]. We do 45 shows a year. We just want to share good music and help out with the grocery bills. We were dumbfounded by the national response."
This summer, PBPJ was invited to play the Pickathon Music Festival outside of Portland, shoulder-to-shoulder with artists like classic LA punk rockers X, one of the biggest up-and-comers of 2014, The War on Drugs, and famed country pop-stars Nickel Creek. His comparative lack of experience making his own solo music didn't stop him from keeping pace with the prestigious lineup of folk and rock artists, fueled by a sweaty, sweltering and poignant packed afternoon gig in the festival's barn venue.
"I'll be 40 in a year and a half," says Wert without a hint of uncertainty. "I started in 2006 on a whim and every time we release something it reflects where we're at as a family, in our age, and how our responsibilities change."
Possessed by Paul James
Crow's Feet Commons 2nd Anniversary Party
5 pm. Fri., Nov. 28
Crow's Feet Commons, 875 NW Brooks St.