By Simon Spencer
Shawn Brush, “The Krooked Cowboy,” is an accomplished musician with 12 albums under his belt and a touring history that includes performances throughout Ontario. He was diagnosed with Morquio syndrome when he was a toddler. Abilities sat down with Brush to talk about his career and his journey to becoming a performer.
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself.
A. I’ve always lived my life “normally” but, every once in a while, I have to remind myself that I’m a bit different because I also have scoliosis as part of the Morquio.
I was about two or three years old when the symptoms started, but that didn’t seem to slow me down. I had a lot of friends and was pretty active and outgoing so I guess, given my condition, the fractures weren’t a surprise. I use a chair now, but as a youngster I rode my bicycle everywhere. On my first day of grade 4, I was riding my bike after school and I broke my left leg. Later, when I had my first power wheelchair, I bumped into a table and fractured my shin. If you were to fall from a stool and hit a cement floor then you’d just hurt yourself—but I would end up with five fractured vertebrae.
Q. How do you cope with the pain that comes with Morquio?
A. For the most part, I work through it. If it gets bad then I just sleep. I simply don’t let things hold me down. A while ago I broke my back but didn’t realize it at first, so I was in the studio recording 10 days later and playing a festival about six weeks afterwards. By then I knew!
Now the Morquio is starting to affect my hands. I’ve got a pain doctor, and cortisone shots have helped. I’m also being treated at a clinic for musicians in Hamilton.
I’ve been using marijuana for about three or four years, and that has also really helped.
Q. When did you discover music, and how has it helped you overcome your challenges?
A. My dad had an old guitar in the closet and around the end of grade 8 I took an interest in learning how to play. I started strumming and my dad showed me a few chords.
I had to take a cab to school because I had the casts. As luck would have it, my cab driver lived close by and played the guitar. He offered to teach me on Saturday afternoons. After a few months I got the hang of it and the guitar became my friend.
That was huge, because I wasn’t playing sports or able to wander around in the neighbourhood like other kids. So, I played guitar after school.
One day, I got on my bike and rode back to my old neighbourhood with my guitar on my back—no case, just a guitar strap. There was a girl who used to babysit me when I was a kid, called Anita. Her husband Dave played guitar really well and I spent the next few years learning from him. He even took me to a bluegrass jam.
Q. What type of music do you play?
A. Like everyone, I have a few heartbreak and lost-love songs. My music is very relaxing for the most part, but tends to cross the boundaries between hillbillies style and some blues. I suppose I fit more into a folk category.
When I first decided to start playing music professionally and do my own recordings, I didn’t want to be recognized as a disabled artist. I didn’t want attention drawn to my condition or my physical side. Rather, I wanted to know that my music had merit on its own.
Acoustic guitar is my thing—partially because bluegrass music is just so accessible. The basic chords can be played by people who are less experienced and people who are really great. The marvellous truth about the acoustic and bluegrass music is that it accepts every walk of life; you can just sit in a circle and play with people.
Q. Do people ever doubt your ability to play?
A. Only until I pick up the guitar! Last year, I visited a coffee house with an open mic. I walked in with my giant guitar and played. And at the end of the evening, the guy at the door came up and said “I owe you an apology. I didn’t think you could do it. But when you played, all my preconceptions fell to the floor.” It resonated so strongly with him that he had judged me on my appearance and he felt so bad about it that he actually had to apologize to me. That’s how stigmas start to disappear.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I want to record another album. But I think right now I’m going to focus on the Shawn Brush Foundation. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, so this is going to be my legacy. Hopefully all things are a go, and I can start to do some more good in the world.
Simon Spencer is a volunteer writer for Abilities with a degree and college diploma in media communications. He writes about topics related to disabilities and new music. Follow Simon on Twitter at: @SimonSpencer482.
The Shawn Brush Foundation provides quality entertainment for charities, community events, church groups and fundraisers through music and inspirational stories. Brush has expressed his interest in speaking about his personal experiences at these events, and hopes that his music can enrich people’s lives. Learn more and donate to the cause at gofundme.com/shawn-brush-foundation.
Photos: Vern White
Morquio syndrome, or mucopolysaccharidosis (MPS) IV, is the fourth of many different disorders under the MPS category. It occurs when the body can’t process certain types of mucopolysaccharides—the long chains of sugar molecules used for building connective tissues in the body. Affected individuals have various skeletal abnormalities, including short stature, knock-knees and abnormalities of the ribs, chest, spine, hips and wrists. People with MPS IV often have loose and very flexible joints (hypermobility), but they may also have restricted movement in certain joints.