Brushy One String: Playing for the people

by Scot Casey

courtesy photo

With a beat-up one string guitar and a voice that is the very essence of soul, Brushy One String is able to breathe life into his music like no other. His voice combines the warmth of Sam Cooke with the passion of Marvin Gaye and the spirituality of Al Green. The notion of the one string as a gimmick is dispelled the instant you hear him perform. As with all great singers, there is an undefinable dimension to his music, a depth that makes you forget that it is only one man, only one string. You get that rare sense with Brushy that the song is singing him.

He was born into a musical family. His father was the great Jamaican singer Freddie McKay (“Picture on the Wall” is one of his most well-known songs) , and his mother, Beverly Foster, was a back-up singer for Tina Turner. “I was mostly raised with my grandma,” he said. “She was a pastor for a church and I used to play the drums in the church. I always liked the way they sing in the church.” He tried to take up the guitar when he was younger but ended up just tossing it under the bed.

But one day, he had dream – he calls it a vision. “In my vision,” he recounted, “there was this little man giving me a guitar. And he said to me, ‘Well you can play this guitar.’ And when I saw the guitar, I saw that it was only one string. So I begin to strum the guitar, began to play the guitar in my vision.” He told his uncle about the vision and his uncle only laughed. But then he remembered the guitar under the bed.

“So I get the big guitar out and I wipe it off,” he said, “and I practice and practice but there was nothing going on for me at the moment. So a few minutes later I hear this song on the radio, it was a Jamaican singer, Sugar Minott.” The song was “Collie (Coming From the Country)” and Brushy, to his delight, found he could play it on the one string guitar. His uncle’s girlfriend heard him and told him, “See? Dreams really do come true!”

He then grabbed his grandmother’s straw hat and went to the town of Linstead and began to play that one song that he knew on the streets. Soon, he said, “Everybody was like, Oh! There’s a new madman in town! Give him some money! So I get some money and buy myself a walkman that had a cassette on it. And I buy a cassette and I begin to tape music and listen to them well. And I practice and practice and I become the one string guitar man.”

Brushy has been deeply influenced by Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green. “They used to make me cry when I listened to them on the radio.” His own music takes the best elements of these great 70s soul singers mixed with the Jamaican music he grew up with and creates a deeply soulful amalgam that simultaneously resonates with the deep pathos of the blues and aching spirituality of the best gospel music. “Spirituality,” he said, “has everything to do with my music.”

After some initial success that went sour in the 90s, Brushy returned heartbroken to Jamaica, to barely surviving and to performing again on the streets. It was here one day that he encountered the filmmaker, Luciano Blotta, who was working on the award-winning documentary about the struggles of young Jamaican artists, “Rise Up!”

Brushy said, “One day I was just entertaining my friends and I see this man with a camera. And I was like, hey man, you give me $20 and I sing you a song! So I take my guitar out and he sees the one string. And I start to sing “Chicken in the Corn” and he was like, ‘Oh, Hold up! Hold up! and he was like laughing!’”

Upon seeing Brushy’s talent, Blotta went on to include Brushy’s music in “Rise Up!” and also made several videos of Brushy performing with his distinctive one string guitar and authentic presence. He posted these on YouTube and they quickly went viral – currently having racked up over nine million views. Since then, Brushy has released the album Destiny (2013) and most recently, No Man Stop Me (2016). He is also featured on a handful of live albums and compilations.

When asked about his future, Brushy said, “My path is leading to a more religious side of life. I love God and I want to be really good to people. I am thinking about the type of songs that bring people together.”

Towards this end, he is currently on the globalFEST world tour, Creole Carnival, with the group Casuarina from Brazil and the singer Emiline Michel from Haiti. The tour is a celebration of the musical traditions of each country – in particular the music of Carnival.

“globalFEST is a wonderful experience!” said Brushy. “We all live together like family. They all do the same thing that I do. They speak another language but they are actually saying the same thing that I am.”

When asked what they all are trying to do, he sums it all up beautifully: “We are all talking about togetherness. We are all talking about loving each other. We are all talking about sharing, giving. We are all talking about taking care of our families. Do things for others who cannot do for themselves.”

LIVE SHOW: See “globalFEST On the Road: Creole Carnival Music” at the Mt. Baker Theatre on Tuesday, April 12 at 7 p.m. 

globalFEST’s first tour, Creole Carnival, honors the roots of African musical currents, crossed with a fusion of sounds from the Americas, and revolving around Carnival, the pre-Lent festival celebrated globally that’s everyone’s favorite excuse for a party. From Brazil (Casuarina) — the superpower of celebration — to Haiti (Emeline Michel) and Jamaica (Brushy One String), each country has its own rich traditions for music, dancing, costumes, and cutting loose. Spanning 35 cities ranging from Lisner Auditorium to Massey Hall in Canada, globalFEST’s international trio of artists, will explore, expand, and upend notions of Carnival, without losing sight of where magic and religious fervor intersect with a madcap, no-holds-barred soiree. 

For tickets, see www.mountbakertheatre.com/shows/globalfest-on-the-road-creole-carnival/. For more about Brushy One String, see www.brushyonestring.com.