Bittersweet Life

Possessed by Paul James, teacher of the year

Bittersweet Life
Photo by Shelley Hiam

Jon Konrad Wert, known for his fiery fiddle, banjo, and guitar playing as well as his emotionally arresting songwriting, takes a seat in a wooden chair on the Scoot Inn's outside stage. One of the most intense deliverymen of folk music today comes dressed as he's always dressed: black shirt, blue jeans, gray conductor hat. Stage lights at his feet shine over his exquisite posture and cast a giant black shadow behind him, with cartoonishly broad shoulders and a banjo neck 10 feet long.

He didn't bring a set list, never does. And he damn sure didn't bring a tuner. There's nothing behind the curtain to his performances as Possessed by Paul James, and tuning backstage might just jeopardize the naked honesty and unpredictability of the experience Wert wants to share. I can respect that, but tonight it's killing me.

"Oh we're always cursed with out-of-tune things," moans Wert, turning the knobs on his instrument while stomping an amplified hunk of plywood. "My wife says, 'Why is everything always out of tune?'"

He tilts his head and squints, willing the B-string into key. "I say, 'I don't know why, darling,' but you gotta try."

Eventually the strings come into harmony, confirmed with a forceful strum.

"There it is!" he shouts and begins fingerpicking a vigorous roll while his black boot kicks high on every beat. Sweat drips from his face, down his arm, and off the head of the banjo. His eyes close, his head draws back and furiously shakes from side to side. I imagine the nails holding the stage together pulling themselves from the wood to dance as Wert's handsome voice erupts over the coruscating rhythm. It's the voice of a friend, one who will always tell you truth. One who's willing to succeed or fail with you. One who will bare his soul so you can too.

Everyone sings along.

After the show, friends join in conversation. Someone slips in the word "retard." Wert bristles. "Awww, don't use the R-word, man. The R-word is shit!"

Back Down Here on Earth

A couple months later, Wert and I ride into the tiny, conservative Hill Country town of Boerne in the big, white tour van that carries him to 60 concerts a year – none of which are in Boerne. He pulls up to an elementary school and rolls to a stop in the closest parking space to the door. It reads, "Reserved for Teacher of the Year: Jon Wert."

Here he teaches Life Skills to students who have been clinically diagnosed with an intellectual disability. From him, they learn the building blocks of reading and math as well as social skills.

"I come from a teaching background," explains Wert. "Teaching's like farming, it's cultural. Once you see what the cycle and the outreach are, you either like it or you don't. I love it."

Inside the classroom, miniature Ameri­can and Texas flags hang overhead and we discuss the nationwide lack of funding for Life Skills programs. Each year, Wert spends a couple thousand dollars out of pocket for class materials. Occasionally he brings in his banjo and viola to help children with physical disorders bridge brain-and-body connections.

"Need is greater than funding so you have to go biblical," he says. "Sometimes you have 5,000 people to feed and all you have is a fish and a loaf of bread. It takes a miracle, but you figure it out."

In his voice hums the conviction that he'd do anything to empower these kids, improve their future, keep them from falling through the cracks.

"Reaching a child with teaching feels the same as connecting with an audience," he muses. "Maybe this song is helping someone through a breakup. Maybe this little darling just learned how to spell her name. They're equally beautiful."

His songs can't help but instruct:

"Hey, little boy, all left alone in the dark and the wild/ You're angry as hell, you're ready to fight/ Oh man, you're such a lonely child/ Come on, little man, let me hear your song/ Don't you know, little man, little sweet thing/ Hell yeah, baby, you belong."

Feed the Family

Wert was raised in Southwestern Florida, by a family of devout Mennonites, a Christ­ian sect similar to the Amish that stresses simplicity, pacifism, and community service. His father was a preacher and teacher and his mother sometimes played piano in church. Mennonites, I'm informed, are excellent singers, four-part harmonies considered a prime method of praise. He struggled in public school.

"I was pushing 260 pounds when I was 12," he remembers. "When you're fat, you're either the funny kid, the bully, or you get withdrawn. I was withdrawn."

Wert, now at a muscular 210 pounds, found empowerment in music, applying the insight from his childhood burdens.

"I learned there's a need for people who are passionate for intervention, because kiddos don't know how to deal with social abuse and feelings of desperation," he says, eyes growing sad. "When you see these present day tragedies in schools and on college campuses it's because the appropriate intervention wasn't there."

At his own homestead in Boerne, there's a sense of security in the cozy, artsy nest he shares with his partner Jenny Gillespie and their two young boys. Wert's role as a provider cemented in 2008 when he was featured in The Folk Singer, a film documenting his attempt to raise money for his unborn child with a Texas-Louisiana tour.

"That was a nerve-wracking time," he admits. "We had just sold everything we owned and I was substitute teaching. Our family was at a crossroads."

Now every summer, the Wert clan plus the family dog piles into the van and tours alongside their folk singer. "Konrad comes back to the hotel really late from playing a show and then has to wake up at 8am when the kids start jumping on him," glows Gillespie. "He's such a trooper."

The summer tours supplement Wert's modest teacher's salary, allowing him the family time many working musicians lose.

Nights When I'm Lonely

PPJ's fifth release, There Will Be Nights When I'm Lonely, out this week on local roots label Hillgrass Bluebilly, is another family affair. All the songs were written in the living room with Jenny and kids close by and recorded in South Austin with a host of local friends including Walter Daniels, Weary Boys Darren Sluyter and Cary Ozanian, and the politically kindred folk-punk orchestra East Cameron Folkcore.

Musically, Wert's reached a new level of possession. His violin: angelic. His banjo: a brothel romp. The lyrics present a thoughtful meditation on life from a most vulnerable vantage point, one that bombards you with realities of love, responsibility, isolation, and gratitude.

In "Sweet But Bitter Life," Wert sings:

"I call this an amazing life we're all living/ Yes it's damn hard, but still it's so giving/ I call this such an amazing life we're all living/ It'll beat you down, but somehow it's so forgiving."

"That song's about a good struggle, the struggle of life," contemplates Wert. "There's a very real presence of challenge in life, but we need to remember to be thankful and we can't lose hope that we can make things better."

CD Release: Saturday, Nov. 2, at Antone's, with the McMer­cy Family Band, also celebrating a new album.

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