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Love it or loathe it, that novelty 80s Christmas reindeer song still slays

Nick Thomas
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Elmo Shropshire performing at Christmas.

’Tis the season in the entertainment world when TV channels bombard us with round-the-clock Christmas movies while radio stations across the country add holiday music to their daily playlists. In the latter case, one song has traditionally been considered naughty or nice, depending on who you ask.

Elmo Shropshire didn’t write “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” but he’s been singing it since first hearing the ditty in Lake Tahoe in the late 1970s. In fact, he should be touring the East Coast now, performing it.

“Usually from early November through Christmas I play with a group of fantastic musicians called The Holiday Express,” said Shropshire by phone from, coincidently, Lake Tahoe where he and wife Pam are vacationing. “Normally, I would be playing a hundred shows with anywhere from 300 to 1,000 in the audience.”

The group, which may consist of anywhere from a dozen to some 60 members, also performs at soup kitchens, hospitals, and schools for kids with special needs as it travels across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. where they also distribute food and gifts. But this year the tour was canceled due to the pandemic.

“Playing with this group of talented musicians is the pinnacle of my career, but we’ll hopefully be back to normal next Christmas,” he said.

Shropshire, who turned 84 this year, readily acknowledges that not everyone is a fan of his now-classic Christmas song, but audiences would probably riot if he didn’t perform it live. It is, after all, a triple threat ballad: a catchy tune wrapped around witty - admittedly macabre - lyrics, featuring Shropshire’s distinctive raspy voice.

“I had no musical background or sang before moving out to California in the 60s,” said Shropshire, a graduate of Auburn University’s veterinary college, who opened his own animal clinic just north of San Francisco.

After graduating from Auburn, he worked with horses at racetracks around New York, but moved to the West Coast after a trip to San Francisco where he soon became interested in bluegrass music. He learned to play the banjo and began performing with his first wife, Patsy.

When songwriter Randy Brooks played his reindeer song for the couple when they were all stranded in a Lake Tahoe hotel due to bad weather in 1978, Shropshire knew he wanted to record his own version.

“I just made this funny Christmas recording as a gag and a friend took it to a radio station and they started playing it,” he recalled. “People began calling in to say they loved it, but so did others who hated it. After that first Christmas, I thought that would be the end of it. But every Christmas the stations would play it again. Unbeknownst to me, they were copying the song on cassettes, and radio stations began playing it all over the country in the early 80s.”

Shropshire knew he had a hit. In 1983, he sold his vet clinic and used $30,000 to produce a video of the song with one modification: “Grandma survives in the video!” he said. “And I played grandma and grandpa.”

While the video currently has over 9 million YouTube views, the singer isn’t sure how many copies of the song have sold, given all the formats now available.

“I think it’s over 11 million on vinyl, cassette, and CD with many more digital downloads now, including ringtones on cell phones - something like over 500,000 in the first days when ringtones first became available.”

And yes, the royalties keep coming any time his version is used - in movies, TV shows, and even a plush toy reindeer that plays the song.

While Shropshire has recorded many other songs including various versions of his “grandma” theme - “The Ballot of Grandma,” “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake” (see www.drelmo.com) - he takes the controversy of the original in his stride.

“It’s just wonderful to have a hit song, even if you only have one,” he says. “I never thought I could still be making a living from it. It’s just one of those things you could never predict.”

And for those of you grinches who still can’t warm up to a Christmas novelty song about a granny taken out by a hit-and-run reindeer, just be grateful her encounter wasn’t with a John Deere.

That really would have been gruesome.

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 850 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.