This is the 82nd post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
On his 1973 album “Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present,” the country singer included a song called “Grandma’s Homemade Christmas Card,” which told the story of a family’s cherished memento:
The family once received a homemade Christmas card
And everyone was thrilled to read the verse inside
‘Cause every line was perfect like the way it should be
And grandma’s name was neatly signed with pride
It simply read, “My prayers and thoughts are with you
And all my Christmas wishes are for real
And I’m just good enough at poetry to make it rhyme
And to also let you know the way I feel”
Grandma’s homemade Christmas card from long ago
Hangs proudly in the tree top with the tinsel snow
It’s the only card that we keep from year to year
Yep, grandma’s homemade Christmas card is always here
When singer-songwriter Randy Brooks first heard the song, he feared that the titular grandma would be killed off in the song. As he told an audience in 2011:
As I listened, I anticipated that Merle was taking us where so many country songwriters did during that period: singing the praises of some beloved figure for two verses, only to reveal in verse three that the beloved figure had passed away.
I thought, “Merle, if you were half the songwriter you think you are, you wouldn’t manipulate your audience like that. You’d break the news in the first line of the song that Grandma was dead — and then if you could still come up with three verses and a chorus, you’d really have something!”
The grandma in Haggard’s song did not end up dying, but Brooks felt inspired to write a Christmas-themed song about a dead grandma anyway. He has said his lyrics were influenced in part by his own grandmother:
All of us grandchildren called my grandmother Dot-Dot. “Dot” was short for Dorothy. As a toddler I added a second Dot, and it stuck. The real mystery is why anyone ever called her Dorothy in the first place since her name was Katherine…
…She was a funny little thing. As time thinned her hair, she took to wearing a luxurious wig of a brunette color not found in nature among women her age. A true Kentuckian, she liked her bourbon. A memory lingers of her leaving our house one night, giggling, with wig askew, and my dad asking if she was sure she was OK to drive…
My mother tells me that Dot-Dot was a harsh taskmaster, a former school teacher who expected perfection from her children. But as the oldest grandchild, I could do no wrong. Dot-Dot and I had a special relationship.
Drawing upon Merle Haggard’s songs and memories of Dot-Dot, Brooks wrote “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” True to his ambition, he killed off Grandma quickly:
Grandma got run over by a reindeer
Walking home from our house Christmas eve
You can say there’s no such thing as Santa
But as for me and grandpa we believe
She’d been drinking too much eggnog
And we begged her not to go
But she forgot her medication
And she staggered out the door into the snow
When we found her Christmas morning
At the scene of the attack
She had hoof-prints on her forehead
And incriminating Claus marks on her back
In the late ’70s, Brooks happened to be stranded at a Hyatt in Lake Tahoe during a blizzard. It was there that he met Elmo Shropshire and Patsy Trigg, a married couple whose Elmo & Patsy live show was a blend of country and comedy. Upon learning of Brooks’ song, Shropshire — a former veterinarian who likes to be called “Dr. Elmo” — asked if he could record “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” Creating copies of the song on 45-rpm records, Dr. Elmo sold Elmo & Patsy’s version of the song at shows.
In 1979, San Francisco DJ Gene Nelson played Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” on air, making it a hit among local listeners. When the Christmas season ended, Dr. Elmo assumed the song’s popularity would diminish. It didn’t. As he told Mental Floss:
“The following year, word spread from radio station to radio station. This wasn’t anything that started out with any big-time radio hype. We weren’t giving DJs cocaine or women or anything. I didn’t have the wherewithal to do all that stuff.”
Dr. Elmo secured the publishing rights and self-released 500 copies of the song. In 1982, a company in Nashville approached him with the idea of pressing 250,000 copies. Though he feared the records wouldn’t sell, they did, giving Dr. Elmo the bold idea to sell his veterinary hospital to make a $30,000 music video. In this video, though, the titular Grandma ended up living.
At this point, he still didn’t have a record deal, and Dr. Elmo worried he had made a mistake. “After I made the video, I had what you’d call filmmaker’s remorse,” Dr. Elmo said. “I paid all that money, and nothing was happening. The 250,000 copies was a good sell, but we didn’t make any money—not enough to pay for the video.”
He soon was able to pay for it. People from MTV called him in November 1983 and put “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” in heavy rotation. On the strength of that exposure, the song passed Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” on the Billboard holiday charts. Dr. Elmo signed a deal with Columbia Records, and by December 1984, his full-length “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” album outpaced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to become the label’s top seller.
From then on, the song has been a perennial radio staple. It has found its way onto multiple Christmas compilations alongside more traditional holiday fare, performed in a few genres.
Irish Canadian folk band The Irish Rovers included a “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” cover on the band’s 1982 Christmas album, “It Was A Night Like This.” The cover later appeared on “Songs of Christmas.” The countryish twangy delivery of the Elmo & Patsy version was smoothed out for a more folky sound, with hints of the band’s Irish accents here and there.
Singer-songwriter Annie Danielewski is better known by her stage name Poe, and Poe is probably best known for “Angry Johnny” and “Trigger Happy Jack.” Her cover of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” sounded less trippy than either of those songs, sounding more like a relaxed lounge version.
Barry Poole is a country music artist who performed parodies of country songs under the name Cledus T. Judd. He’s been compared to Weird Al Yankovic, but his material is more graphic and crass than Yankovic’s songs. On his 1996 album, “I Stoled This Record,” Judd rewrote “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” as “Grandpa Got Runned Over By A John Deere”:
He’d been a-guzzlin’ old Jack Daniels
And smokin’ that wacky weed
He mixed it with his medication
And run off with some bleach-blonde named Bernice
Followed up with…
But we’re all ashamed of Grandpa
He took Grandma’s death too well
Started watchin’ porno movies
And engaging in phone sex with Cousin Belle
It’s weird, but not Weird Al.
For his 2002 album “Cledus Navidad,” Judd performed a country-fied version of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” though he still said “runned” instead of “run.” In the intro to his version, Judd erroneously attributed the writing of the song to Elmo & Patsy, not Brooks.
The 2000 compilation “Sleighed: The Other Side of Christmas” featured a ragtag crew of bands covering Christmas songs, including Local H’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Goldfinger’s “White Christmas,” and The Smithereens’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” In that mix was Less Than Jake’s “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” which sounded exactly what you’d expect a pop-punk cover of the song to sound like: bratty and aggressive.
On the 2006 album, “A Dreaded Xmas: More Xmas Negatives,” Those Dreaded Gnats recast “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” as a sunny reggae jam. The band paid attention to detail, changing snow to sand and specifying that the eggnog was Jamaican. What a reindeer was doing in a sandy climate, though, I have no idea.
On the website for The 3 Redneck Tenors, the classically trained singers are described as having a style that’s “‘Duck Dynasty’ goes to Carnegie Hall – down home laughs with big city music!” On the trio’s rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” on the 2007 album “Christmas SPEC-TAC-YULE-AR,” the singers seem to try to downplay their talent and training in favor of playing up stereotypes for laughs. And it seems to work for their audience.
But if you’re interested in a version of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” performed in more classical style, then this version by Dublin’s Gay & Lesbian choir Glória might scratch the itch. Appearing on the group’s 2007 album “Wish You a Very Merry Christmas,” this version of the song is given the same serious treatment that more traditional standards would receive, making it funnier than the versions that play up country and “redneck” tropes.
Christian band Family Force 5 recast “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” as a rap-rock song. Confounding as that sentence might be, there’s nothing else I could say that could adequately describe this cover.
“We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year” was a 2008 compilation featuring a roster of metal musicians. A lot of them. The collection’s cover of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” boasted Stephen Pearcy of Ratt, Tracii Guns of L.A. Guns, drummer Gregg Bissonette, W.A.S.P. guitarist Bob Kulick, and bassist Billy Sheehan. With that Voltron of ’80s hair band veterans, the song sounded exactly like you’d expect.
Recording nine different videos of himself singing and beat-boxing, YouTube user Leonard Patton made his own a capella version of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” Patton paid extreme attention to detail, as the layers of texture run deep.
The members of Thee Merry Widows have proudly referred to their group as “America’s first all female psychobilly band.” After listening to the band’s cover of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” it’s hard not to feel run over yourself.
On the less aggressive end of rockabilly covers, The Uncommon Houseflies’ version of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” sounded somber and chilling, like a Christmas gone wrong as narrated by The Smiths or Echo & The Bunnymen.
Reel Big Fish’s 2014 release “Happy Skalidays” had a ska-punk “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” that sounded exactly how you’d expect it to sound: bright horns, crunchy guitars, and fast drums. It was more ska than punk, and thus sounded more polished than the Less Than Jake cover.
A capella group Home Free released a twangy “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” on its 2014 album, “Full of Cheer.” It sounded like a traditional a capella take on the song…
…which is why the more noteworthy a capella-ish cover was from pop band After Romeo. There was a churchy tone to it, and by that, I mean sounded like a hymnal sung at a funeral.
Just as The Uncommon Houseflies’ version had the sounds of ’80s post-punk, The Manhattan Love Suicides’ “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” had a familiar sound. But whereas The Uncommon Houseflies vaguely sounded like The Smiths or Echo & The Bunnymen, The Manhattan Love Suicides’ cover sounded specifically like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey.”
You heard the way the track had that Phil Spector-esque drumbeat, right? Of course you did.
After writing a song that has been covered multiple times, Randy Brooks eventually recorded his own version of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” though it didn’t take off the way that Patsy & Elmo’s version did.
But despite the fact that his version didn’t become the one that everyone remembers, Brooks still benefited from the song. “In some years, the royalties make my day job my second job,” Brooks told The Dallas Morning News.
Though, the fame has been occasionally uncomfortable for him. “It’s always awkward to be introduced into situations that have nothing to do with music, like a funeral, as ‘This is Randy Brooks: he wrote ‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,'” he said.
That would be especially awkward if the funeral was for a grandma.
For his part, Dr. Elmo has ascribed the song’s success to its morbid tone coming at the right time. “All those hits from the early ’50s were really sweet and wonderful and lovely,” he told Mental Floss. “They liked to play them in shopping malls so people would buy stuff. When this song came along, another generation of people—and even the younger generations now—embraced it because it’s a little dark. It was much more to their sense of humor. It wasn’t too syrupy sweet.”