Although “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” now resides well outside of Billboard’s Holiday 100 chart, it once reigned supreme over Christmas classics, due in part to controversy that’s every bit as silly as the song’s music video.
Dr. Elmo Shropshire, a Kentucky native, Auburn University graduate and veterinarian, and then-wife Patsy Trigg learned the song in the late ’70s from its writer, Randy Brooks. Elmo & Patsy first recorded the song in 1979 while living in San Francisco. The over-the-top tale of holiday season hit-and-run brought even more levity to playlists dominated by comparably serious tales of Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
What started off as a regional hit spun on country radio stations became a widespread phenomenon by 1983. If that reads like hyperbole, consider this: “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” was more popular for several years in the ’80s than the undisputed king of Christmas songs, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
A funny thing happened in between the song’s 1979 debut and its 1983 supplanting of more serious Christmas carols. An anti-ageist group called the Gray Panthers started speaking out against what they considered a tacky song that, for lack of better words, mocks someone’s dead grandma. Coverage of the song’s opponents by MTV and other outlets only made Elmo & Patsy’s intentionally absurd song a stronger force on the holiday charts.
Elmo & Patsy weren’t just moonlighting as country performers for the sake of a novelty song. They cut a serious bluegrass album together in 1974. Before that, the couple played bluegrass, gospel and country music together in the band Homestead Act.
After the runaway success of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” Elmo & Patsy embraced their newfound role as musical jokesters, cutting bizarre love song “Doomsday Waltz” (1984) and other novelties that would’ve worked as Ray Stevens singles.
Since the song’s heyday, the rechristened Dr. Elmo recorded a rap version and lent his voice to an animated motion picture based on the original lyrics. Per IMDB, the Phil Roman-directed cartoon co-starred such vocal talents as Jim Staahl (Bobby’s World) and Scott McNeil (Dragon Ball Z, Scooby Doo).