Konward Wert could have been a preacher.
His father had been a pastor, the musician said in a 2011 interview. He grew up Mennonite, foretellings of fire and brimstone drilled into his head in church. Teachers urged Wert to consider leading a congregation. But Wert wanted no part of it.
“Religion is religion,” he said, “and I’d much rather share my joys and burdens on a Friday and Saturday night over some drinks than in a church come Sunday morning.”
For the last decade, Wert has shared his joys and burdens through his music, specifically a one-man project called Possessed by Paul James. Alternating between banjo, fiddle and guitar — while stomping his foot to keep rhythm — Wert has earned acclaim for his kinetic performances, many so intense they verge on the spiritual.
But playing music is the closest Wert has come to preaching, at least professionally. His main passion is education, with a focus on special-needs kids. He’s done it for 15 years, winning “Teacher of the Year” in his Texas school district in 2012. Now he’s working on a film that tracks his recent tour, during which he traveled the country with his family in an RV, talking with education stakeholders by day and playing music by night. The documentary is called When It Breaks.
In November, Possessed By Paul James came through D.C. to play a gig at Hill Country downtown, and he stopped by WAMU beforehand to record a couple of songs for Bandwidth. Above, witness the schoolteacher’s rapturous performance of “Grandmother, Oh Grandmother,” followed by a darker tune, “Heavy.”
Bonus photos from the studio session, captured and edited by Peter Swinburne: