When Jamaican musician Andrew Chin, better known as Brushy One String first told friends about his vision — “a dream in which he was told to play the one-string guitar” — they responded with mockery — all but one, who “insisted it was fate,” writes Playing for Change, “and that he had to make that dream come true.” So Brushy set out to do just that, playing on streetcorners and in the market, “in a big broad hat and sunglasses,” he says. The music came to him naturally. He is no ordinary street musician, however, and his one-string guitar is not a gimmick. Brushy is a talented singer-songwriter, with a powerful voice and a musical sensibility that transcends his bare-bones minimalism.
He doesn’t look particularly flashy, perched on the street with his beat-up guitar in the video at the top for “Chicken in the Corn.” Brushy came of age in a scene “where most performers long to be hip-hop MCs or dancehall style DJs.”
Brushy’s one-string technique reaches back to the origins of the blues in the Diddley Bow (from which Bo Diddley took his name), and even further back into musical history, recalling what musicologists would call a “monochord zither.” One-string players in history have included Mississippi bluesman Eddie “One String” Jones, Lonnie Pitchford, and Willie Joe Duncan, who invented the Unitar, an electrified one-string guitar and scored a hit in the 1950s.
Whether or not Brushy fits himself into this tradition, he “came by his musical abilities honestly,” playing a reggae infused soul-meets-Delta Blues inspired by his parents. His father was Jamaican soul singer Freddy McKay and his mother, Beverly Foster, toured as a backup singer with Tina Turner. Unfortunately, he was orphaned at a young age and unable to finish his education. He didn’t learn to read at all until he became an adult. Brushy tried to learn guitar, but “I didn’t really know how to play,” he says, “and I played so hard, all the strings broke. So the guitar went under the bed” until his one string epiphany. As he began to sing and play, his one, low-E string and the wooden body of his acoustic guitar became a rhythm section, his expansive voice rising up between beats, “a voice so rich and full,” NPR writes, “all it wants is a bit of rhythmic and melodic underpinning.”
Brushy names both soul legend Teddy Pendergrass and dancehall legend Shabba Ranks as influences, a key to the range of his songwriting, which comes “from the situations I’m in,” he says. “It’s like magic: From the situation, I don’t search for something, not in my head or nowhere else. The song just comes.” He had some early modest success, did a tour of Japan, then returned to his hometown of Ochoa Rios to kick around and play locally. It was then that filmmaker Luciano Blotta encountered him while finishing the 2007 Jamaican music documentary, Rise Up. “Chicken in the Corn” made the soundtrack, and it turned into Brushy’s big break.
He’s since played South by Southwest, New Orleans House of Blues, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, had a documentary made about him — The King of One String (2014) — and released three studio albums and a live album. It’s well deserved success for a musician who was ready to quit music until he had a dream — and who then found the courage (and the good luck) to make it real.