A FEW MINUTES WITH… Chris Shaw of “Mountain Snow & Mistletoe”

Bridget Ball and Chris Shaw
Bridget Ball and Chris Shaw

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

Maybe it was the missed plane flight that was the final underlining moment where Chris Shaw decided to it was time to hang up his hat as a regular performer. “We went to Punta Cana last April,” says the veteran Adirondack folk singer. “Not only did we miss the flight back, but they couldn’t put us on another flight for three days. So we went back to the resort, booked ourselves back into the room, and went down to the pool. I ordered myself a drink and told the hotel, ‘You give a ring when you’ve got a plane that’s smoking back to Albany, New York.’”

Chris’ wife Bridget Ball made it out in two days. Chris and son Silas spent “an extra day in the Caribbean soaking up the sun.” Chris calls that experience the turning point in his decision to “move on from performing.” For the last time in 25 years, he and Bridget will perform two sold-out “Mountain Snow & Mistletoe” holiday shows this weekend at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre in Albany.

Chris doesn’t like to call what he’s doing quitting. Rather, it’s a void that in reality has already been filled. Those extra three days in the sun were a sweet alternative to the nightmare he would have faced if that cancelled flight meant that he missed an 8pm performance that first night and three more on the following days.

My signed copy of the Mountain Snow and Mistletoe CD that started the beloved tradition of these holiday shows reads “1991 Merry Christmas fa la la la la la! Love, Bridget and Chris.” Time is immaterial with friends like them. I measure the timeline in pivotal moments. There was the Amsterdam Library show when I took my wife-to-be Shelly and her then young daughter Tanneal to see the husband-and-wife team sprinkle magic over a small crowd in a cozy little room under a blanket of falling snow that danced in the flood lights outside the window. I marveled that these two performers could hold the attention of a little girl who normally flitted from one point of focus to another in times measured in seconds, rather than minutes.

The husband-and-wife team performed “Northern Breeze” at our wedding. Chris wrote it about my heartbreak over losing Shelly, who had moved to Tennessee. The song so captured my wistful longing that it became a theme for my chasing her down south and bringing her back to marry.

For years I would annually spend an afternoon with Chris and write up a preview of their annual Christmas show for The Troy Record. It might be the only time Chris and I saw each other all year, but ours is the kind of relationship that you pick up in seconds, almost as if he were my roommate who’d just come back from a quick run to Stewart’s to buy a quart of fat-free milk.

“Uncle Walt” is a 15-minute tall tale loosely based on Chris’ childhood in the Adirondacks that’s become – for most who’ve experienced it – a tradition as important to Christmas as Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” is to Thanksgiving. One year he left it out of the show. “My God, what a mistake,” recalls Chris. “I don’t remember what year it was, but I remember faxes were still a thing because I got phone calls; I got letters; I got faxes. People were ready to blow up that they didn’t get their ‘Uncle Walt.’”

In a year when religion has become the sticking point to so many in a conflict that’s become World War III in reality (but we’re all too afraid to call it that), it seems especially hard to imagine that we’ll no longer have “Mountain Snow and Mistletoe” to draw us back to a time when the images of religion were comforting rather than inciting. “I think (the concept of Christmas) may have changed out there in the world,” says Chris, “but it hasn’t changed much here. We’re truly creatures of tradition in this house. If you walked into Christmas this year, and if you had a time machine and could walk into Christmas 10 years ago, the only thing that would be different is that the boys would be shorter.”

There is no better example of the “Mountain Snow and Mistletoe” embodiment of the Christmas spirit than “Ten Dollar Christmas,” a song about a poor woodsman who poaches Christmas trees on state land. The conservation officer is obliged to fine the woodsman $10 for the offense, but when he comes to the man’s home, he gives back the ten spot in exchange for one of several puppies in the litter and then sends others to the man’s home to buy the other puppies and enrich the poor man’s Christmas coffers.

“That’s a true story,” says Chris. “There’s a quality to true stories that, no matter how well you dream up something, just doesn’t hold up to the quality of a true story.”

Chris Shaw has always been a moral compass for me. Together we cut through the crap very quickly. In this year’s interview, we talked about the cloud of ISIS. “The scariest thing,” says Chris, “is we’re letting fear drive the ship. That’s wrong. We’re better than that. We’ve had some horrendous things happen in the last 10 years. There’s no question about that, but the minute you let fear take over, you’ve lost all control.”

He’s right. I learned that lesson in Vietnam.

Another point he makes is that we should not generalize about Muslims. “Muslims worship the God of Abraham which is the same God that Christians worship, and there is no more a part of the Koran that preaches violence than there is the Bible.” To paint all Muslims as extremists is as ridiculous as saying all Christians hate African-Americans because of the KKK who act in the name of Christianity.

Finally, he points to an aphorism pertinent to our current situation: “An old Cherokee told his grandson, ‘My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.’ The boy thought about it, and asked, ‘Grandfather, which wolf wins?’ The old man replied, ‘The one you feed.’”

Chris and Bridget, in their every waking hour, teach us to feed the good wolf we have in us.

Remember, I said at the beginning of this article that Chris and Bridget weren’t “quitting,” but rather looking for things to fill that void? They have been performing “Mountain Snow
and Mistletoe” for 25 years and performing for 42. I wrote for The Troy Record for 42 years. For the last two or three years, I was forbidden by my editor to write about the show because I was repeating myself by interviewing the same person year after year.

Both Chris and I have a void to fill now. He is no longer performing and I no longer have a weekly deadline for two columns. We resolve that one of the things we’d like to fill that void with is to renew our friendship. One of the ways we choose to do that is to go fishing together. I told Chris I’d never fished in my life, but I understand that it’s a very Zen experience that I probably would enjoy. He responded with the following story.

“I took a person fishing years ago for the first time up on Lake George where I know the waters well and put them in a position to catch fish right off the bat, which is important. There’s no delayed gratification if you wanna get with the program.

“So, out on the rock we go, and the bobber just kept going straight down. I was on the other side of the island, and I hear a scream. I come back and here the pole is over the shoulder ’cause this person doesn’t really know how to operate the equipment, walking up the walk trying to drag this three-and-a half-pound small mouth bass up the rocks, manages to do it, manages to land the thing. I go down. I grab it. I take it off the hook and around the corner comes Walt Lockhart, who I went to high school with, who also happens to be the conservation officer. And it’s three days before bass season.

“So, I kinda waved, and I put the bass back in the lake. He comes over to me and says, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy? You could have eaten that fish for the whole weekend.’

“And that person went out to the end of the dock with a lantern that night and fished. I’m sitting at the fire. They’re out there on the dock fishing, and I couldn’t get ’em to stop fishing basically for the next few years.”

That newly obsessed person with a pole was Bridget Ball, who of course, went on the become Chris’ wife and occasional performing partner. Years later, Bridget admitted to her husband that she realized, “If I didn’t fish, this relationship wasn’t going to work.”

Now, 25 years into “Mountain Snow and Mistletoe,” that relationship has borne two sons and outlasted Chris’ obsession with music.

WHAT: “Mountain Snow and Mistletoe”
WHO: Chris Shaw and Bridget Ball with Trish Miller on banjo, John Kirk on fiddle and mandolin, Kevin McKrell on vocals, Brian Mellick on percussion and Tony Markellis on bass
WHERE: The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: Saturday at 7:30pm: Sunday at 2pm
UPDATE: Both shows are now officially sold out.

1 Comment
  1. Diane Amyot says

    What can I say about two old friends who over the years taught a lot of us to love music, life, and one another in an entirely new way. I for one will always be grateful to have been a part of your experiences!! Thanks so much!!

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