The Kindness of Country as Nashville comes to Hemel Hempstead

Back in the depths of lockdown, my son Max and I were fortunate to have our evening brightened by a series of interactive Zoom sessions with various US based country artists. On one such session, Max got chatting to Aaron Goodvin, who broke his guitar stool while performing and actually signed and sent Max the broken piece of wood, now a treasured souvenir of those strange times from a wonderful artist.

A couple of years earlier, Max and I had become involved with an incredible Hertfordshire charity Electric Umbrella, who create amazing live music and music related experiences with learning disabled people – providing them with meaningful daily activity, delivering EDI education programmes, and helping change the way the world looks at them – and others. Five years on, it’s been life changing for Max – and I work as their head of marketing.

Last week in the improbable environs of Hemel Hempstead and Watford, these two stories, and worlds, came together to create a special, truly unforgettable day for all involved.

Max & I have a shared love of country music, which has already brought these worlds together on a number of occasions: Kyle Daniel has written and performed with Electric Umbrella and visited us when he was over here. Clayton Smalley, Caitlin Cannon & Katie Rees have performed on our album. And Tebey has had the improbable experience of being taught the “crab dance” on our weekly interactive EUTV online show!

Aaron appeared on the online show last month, ahead of his trip to the UK to play the Buckle & Boots Festival and tour the country along with Jessie G and Matt Wynn. Last Friday the travelling group of 8 people from Nashville, including Jessie’s baby daughter, left their hotel in Birmingham at the crack of dawn, braved the train strikes, and broke their journey to London in Hemel Hempstead to spend the day with our amazing community of members and musicians – including, of course, Aaron’s friend Max! 

They started their day with a tour of our “Emporium” a converted shop where Electric Umbrella members spend “crew days” at musical sessions, preparing for trips to deliver school & corporate workshops and refurbishing donated music instruments (over 3000 have been donated to date) which are then sold in the shop – some as instruments, some repurposed into lamps, tables and other furniture! 

Aaron Goodvin Electric Umbrella Jessie G Matt Wynn Max Lewis
Max Lewis welcomes Aaron Goodvin, Jessie G and Matt Wynn to the Electric Umbrella Emporium in Hemel Hempstead

After seeing what we do, the artists took to our stage for their own lunchtime performance. A show not only for, and sometimes co-starring, our members (that’s the EU way – all our members are superstars!) but also open to anyone in the area, country fans or just passers by doing their shopping. Not an average Friday lunchtime in Hemel!

A crowd gathered to see some wonderful performances as the three artists performed their own songs alongside familiar covers – Max joined Aaron for “Walking In Memphis”, Aaron, Jessie & Matt together delivered an amazing cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” (which it turned out, remarkably, they had never performed together previously) – and Aaron was approached by a passer-by who, walking past the shop, heard the sound of his song “Lonely Drum” recognised it from her line dancing class and was astonished to find Aaron right there on her doorstep! EU members were right in the middle of proceedings at all times, providing musical backup – and even an ABBA interlude at one point!

It was a memorable morning, but the day wasn’t done yet. Piling into Electric Umbrella’s yellow bus, we moved everyone on, to our regular Friday “Face The Music” session in Watford…

There, the artists joined 25 of Electric Umbrella’s learning-disabled members and musicians in a music session. Members were up on stage alongside Aaron, Jessie and Matt for classic country requests such as “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Take Me Home Country Roads” (alongside our very own Tom Billington & Sinead Quinn, who will be taking their own brand of country to play on the main stage at CarFest in August). The artists were entertained by our own “Lockdown Country Song” and, by popular demand, reprised their performance of “Tennessee Whiskey”.

Aaron Goodvin Electric Umbrella Jessie G Matt Wynn Sinead Quinn Tom Billington
Jessie, Aaron and Matt help to lead a music session for Electric Umbrella members, along with Sinead Quin and Tom Billington

By the time session wrapped and the members and our fabulous guests had finished chatting (there were some quite remarkable conversations combining Travis Tritt, Slipknot, Chris Stapleton and S Club 7 at times) they had been with us for over 6 hours and an exhausted crew headed off to Putney, to prepare for their shows at the Half Moon over the weekend, with hearts enriched and full of our special brand of Electric Umbrella joy.

Aaron said the day was “crazy fun, exciting, just so much going on, it’s amazing, it’s so awesome just to see smiles on faces, making music, making noise just having a good time”. Jessie called it “the best day I’ve had so far in the UK… such a wonderful, fun time. I hope we can come back here”. And for Matt, “there were so many highlights to this trip but I think the highlight I will leave here with the most is being at Electric Umbrella. You guys do incredible things for people that need it and the thing I love most about this is the community aspect of it. It’s special.” 

It’s often said that there is a big country family, and nothing could prove it better than this day and this group of artists and crew – their kindness, generosity and amazing talent will live with us all. And I think it’s safe to say the feeling is mutual!

Special thanks to Emma Smith and Colin Parry, without whom we would never have met Aaron, and this visit would never have happened; Nancy Johnson, Nancy Tunick & John Griffin at Grassroots, Matt Pennings who was tour managing the whole group (at the same time as fulfilling dad duties while Jessie G performed!), Jessie’s guitarist Chris, Jax & Charles who were with them filming – and, of course, most of all, Jessie G, Matt Wynn and Aaron Goodvin for delivering an unforgettable day. Their music is of course available on all streaming services… as is Electric Umbrella’s! Do check it out!

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