Elmo & Patsy "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" - original 1979 single version

Yes, it's that time of year again. It's not quite Thanksgiving yet, but certain radio stations have already begun packing their playlists with Christmas music -- in some cases playing it round-the-clock -- and in-store broadcasting networks are also constantly playing holiday tunes to provide a real-life soundtrack for customers' Christmas shopping activities. One song you have probably been hearing is the comedy novelty song charmingly titled "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer", by Elmo & Patsy. The version of the song that people have been typically hearing for the last 40 Christmases or so is the re-recorded version from 1982. Many people have understandably forgotten the original recording of the song from 1979, which was released on an independent label based in Tennessee. In this earlier version, the vocal tone was much more understated, and the steel guitar sounded a bit more somber, making the song come across like a more straight-faced black comedy.

Elmo & Patsy were a comedic bluegrass duo made up of Elmo Shropshire (aka Dr. Elmo) and his then-wife Patsy Trigg Shropshire, who had previously recorded two indie albums as part of a bluegrass outfit called The Homestead Act in the early-'70's, and another bluegrass album as a duo (the self-titled Elmo & Patsy) in 1974. The original version of "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" was self-released as a single by the duo in 1979 (and, hilariously enough, was issued by the Stiff label in the U.K. in 1980). Despite the billing of the duo, the now-famous A-side was actually a solo recording by Elmo, telling a morbidly funny tale of a grandmother who unwisely walked out into the snow on Christmas Eve while drunk on eggnog, and (according to the grandson supposedly singing the song) was trampled to death by one of Santa's reindeer. The 1979 indie single found its way onto radio airwaves during the holidays, and became a much-requested song; it was subsequently re-recorded in 1982 to be part of a full-length Christmas album by the husband-and-wife duo. Since then, that newer version of the song has become a familiar holiday staple, even reaching #1 on the Billboard Christmas Hits chart more than once. The Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer album, which began to receive major-label distribution by Epic in 1984, finds both Elmo and Patsy supplementing that darkly comic hit song with family-friendly country Christmas corn, some of it comedic ("SeƱor Santa Claus") and some of it sincere ("Here's To The Lonely").

What's the difference between the two recordings of the song? It lies mostly in Elmo's vocal delivery. Singing a country ditty with several bars lifted from "Jingle Bells", Elmo sounds almost serious on the 1979 version, making it (in my opinion) much funnier than the re-recorded version with Elmo's exaggerated phrasing. On the more familiar version, Elmo adds annoying and unnecessary emphasis to certain words and lines -- for example, stressing the "you" in "You can say there's no such thing as Santa" in the chorus -- to underline the comedic intent. It's more amusing to hear his more deadpan delivery on the original recording. Except for the part about "the blue and silver candles" (he did not originally say "Ahhh!" before that line), Elmo sounds like he is keeping a straight face while telling the sicko story. When he asks the question, "Should we open up her gifts, or send them back?", there is not a chorus of voices answering "Send them back!".

So, was Grandma really run over by a reindeer, or is that just an assumption made by her dim-witted grandson because it happened on Christmas Eve? The "incriminating claws-marks" (er, Claus marks?) could have simply been made by a wild animal on the loose in a small town, right? It could be interpreted either way. In fact, in an animated TV special based on the song, which began airing in 2000, there was a different culprit altogether, and Grandma survived the incident!

Written by Randy Brooks, nephew of the late comedian Foster Brooks, "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" not only pokes fun at holiday songs, but also at many country songs in which a character tragically dies. The song is very polarizing in any form, and people have every right to hate it. Like most comedy novelty songs, it's certainly not for all tastes. But here's my advice: don't knock it till you try the original:

The B-side of the single contained an original composition titled "Christmas", written and sung by Patsy. This was a more straightforward holiday song with feel-good lyrics, perhaps intended as a socially redeeming counterpoint to the A-side. The under-produced 1979 single version has a too-old-fashioned country sound that makes it dull and plain; in this case, the 1982 re-recording of the song for the full-length album is a definite improvement, spruced up with added layers of Christmas color and cheerfulness.

Elmo 'n' Patsy "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" (b/w "Christmas") (Kim-Pat KP2984) 1979

Track Listing:

a. Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer
b. Christmas