Chris Shaw and Bridget Ball’s Christmas Five Years Later

Five years after the last Mountain Snow and Mistletoe Christmas show, Chris Shaw is waxing nostalgic as he prepares for his son Tink’s wedding. “You’re not in touch with the little stuff anymore. All that minutia falls together to make something called life. And when you can’t put all that together, life gets skewed. And that’s what happens to us, Don. Life gets skewed. So, go skew yourself.” 

We both laugh at each other’s silly jokes. 

Chris Shaw is one of those friends who you fall out of contact with for a year or more because the “business” of life takes over. Suddenly, you realize that time is passing your friendship by, you make a call, and its like time stands still. No! Time becomes irrelevant. The threads of your mutual existence pull together into a warm sweater. Connection! You laugh! You cry! You share stupid stories and important milestones in a cacophony of emotion. And at the end of the conversation, you ask yourself, how did I let so much time go by between contacts? 

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Chris says I wrote 25 Christmas columns about him for the Troy Record. I’ve lost count. For most of the 40-plus years I wrote a music column for the Troy Record, I pretty much obeyed a rule now considered archaic in this age of social media. “Back in the day” it was an unspoken rule that columnists not put themselves into the articles they wrote. The purpose of my column was to give my daily newspaper readers the back stories of both local artists and national acts coming into town for concerts.  

With Chris, I broke the rule. First of all during that time period, Chris –  and for a time, his wife Bridget – grew from being local folk performers doing two sets a night at The Ale House in Troy to being a major national touring act. Chris is old school in that he is a great guitar picker and a singer with delivery as unique and heartfelt as Johnny Cash. But unlike the folksingers of the ’60s folk movement, he’s more like Dylan, Paxton, Seeger and the Traums in that he writes his own material. The son of a newspaper editor, he is an expert on Adirondacks and has carried the torch for Adirondack mountain lore, elevating the culture of this wonderful state park to a point of recognition equal to that of the Appalachian folk artists. 

Those 25 articles I wrote for The Record represent more coverage than I ever gave any other artist with the possible exception of the Allman Brothers. Doug De Lisle was my wonderful and long-suffering editor for the paper. The rationale I gave him for so much coverage was that Chris and Bridget’s annual Mountain Snow and Mistletoe concert was the most revered and treasured holiday event in the region.  

The Melodies of Christmas at Proctor’s Theatre may challenge that statement, but what set Mountain Snow and Mistletoe apart was that personal connection. Chris and Bridget embody the Christmas spirit both in a religious context and in the joyous wonder that turns us all into wide-eyed children, if only for a moment. Over the years this couple and their show became as important and treasured a part of the season as the Christmas tree that re-arranged our living rooms. 

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I remember the first time I experienced Mountain Snow and Mistletoe. It must have been 1989 or ’90 at the Amsterdam Library. Chris and Bridget did it as an acoustic duo. It was snowing outside, the kind of fluffy large flake snow that flutters down in slow motion, and transports you into the season. I brought my wife-to-be Shelly with her overactive youngest child, Tanneal, and I remember Tanneal actually sitting still through the whole performance, a miracle unique to her at the time. 

Over the next two and a half decades the show grew, moved to the Caffe Lena, The Egg, and eventually the Troy Music Hall where it sold out multiple performances well before the date of the show. 

Mountain Snow and Mistletoe, the CD, is a cherished possession in our family played in rotation with Christmas albums by Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Kenny Rogers. It is perhaps the only CD universally loved by nearly every one of the kids in our circle. I took it to play in the car this week while I shopped, and Shelly approached me as soon as I got home, asking almost breathless, “Where is the Mountain Snow and Mistletoe album,” fearing that it had gotten lost in the vast collection on recordings stuffed in various locations around the house. 

My favorite cut on the album is “Ten Dollar Christmas,” an original that embraces what the holiday is all about. Joe Carson, a poor man with a large family, illegally cuts down a tree on state land, and the conservation officer John Roberts fines him $10. Realizing that that $10 is the only thing separating Joe from giving his kids presents, John buys one of Carson’s puppies – for $10 – and returns later with orders for 10 more puppies, assuring Joe enough money to make a merry Christmas for his children. The cut was produced by Rory Block and includes John Sebastian on harmonica and Vassar Clements on fiddle. It’s the only number on the album recorded in a real studio. The rest of the LP was made in July at Chris and Bridget’s home with the windows all closed so there’d be no extraneous sounds. 

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Chris and Bridget are dear friends. Family and friends are the gift God gives us to overcome the obstacles in our path. I thought my being ordered to Vietnam would be the biggest obstacle I would face in life. The pandemic is worse than that because it impacts all of us worldwide. In Vietnam I was able to face the horror of my possible annihilation by writing a column about music for the “grunts” in the killing fields. It was a window on a world of wonder that awaited us who were there if we could just hang on for 365 days in hell. 

The whole planet is in hell now, and there is no time line as to when we get out of this hell. We are told to sequester, a word as nasty as it sounds. That the end is in sight. That Christmas should be cancelled. That those who get Covid 19 must die alone. 

We as a civilization endure because we are able to adapt. Chris Shaw helped me realize that Christmas is in our heart, and this disease cannot take away the warm memories of Mountain Snow and Mistletoe just as Vietnam could not quell the spirit within me. Chris volunteers at a soup kitchen. I still write about wonderful people who give us hope and escape. We adapt to change. 

“What do I miss about the music business,” says Chris. “I miss what we’re doing right now, talking to people, finding out what happening in their lives. I’m sitting on my ass in the sun room with a guitar in my lap that I can only play for about five minutes at a time before I have to take a break (because of a rotor cup injury). I’d much rather be talking to you.”   

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We hear the words “We’re all in this together.” Scientists have found vaccines to keep us alive. In the meantime, we connect with each other in different ways whether it be through zoom, social media, or six feet apart. Our masks may cover our smiles, but our eyes are the windows to our soul. We are reminded of Mountain Snow and Mistletoe through the record. Love and hope are not destroyed by masks and social distancing. I can still converse and laugh with my friend Chris. 

We’ve just experienced the shortest day of the year. Even though the winter solstice marks the beginning of winter, each succeeding day has more daylight than the day before. Each day is a little brighter and a little longer. Will we ever experience Mountain Snow and Mistletoe live again? Chris says no. But every day he’s able to play guitar a little longer. We adapt. 

Merry Christmas! 

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