Elmo Shropshire was driving around San Francisco in the late 1970s when he tuned in to the middle of a lively debate on the radio. Several listeners had requested a song with great enthusiasm; a few had complained about it just as fiercely. The deejay, sensing an attention-getter, put the needle in the groove. Then Shropshire heard his own voice warbling in an earnest treble. “I was shocked at just how awful I sounded,” he recalls.
The song was “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
He had recorded it as a lark, with no grander ambition than giving it to friends as gag gifts and possibly selling a few singles for pocket change. At the time, Shropshire was working as a veterinarian by day and performing on the side in an Americana lounge act dubbed “Patsy & Elmo,” forming a duo with his then-wife, Patsy Trigg. One of the couple’s fans had submitted their silly little record to the radio station.
The ditty’s hook turned out to be catchier than Shropshire had ever imagined. His gleeful, nasal delivery of lyrics describing an eggnog-soused matriarch who gets trampled to death by one of Santa’s draught animals fell into that peculiar “so bad, it’s good” category of pop culture, providing, for many listeners, comic relief from the sentimental soundtrack of the holiday season.
“You know you’re going to hear certain standards played to death over the airwaves that time of year, so you don’t usually phone in to ask for ‘Jingle Bells,’” Shropshire says. “But a song about grandma getting killed—well, you have to go out of your way to ask for that, and enough people did. Deejays like songs that show people are listening and paying attention. It just struck some sort of chord.”
Call it a Christmas miracle.
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” went multi-platinum, selling more than 11 million copies. It quickly knocked Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” from the top of Billboard’s holiday charts and inspired a sprawling, ongoing franchise that includes heavy-metal and foreign-language covers, an animated movie, spots on various film soundtracks, and an array of plush, singing reindeer toys and blinking, collectible keepsakes and kitsch. Moreover, “Grandma” has proved remarkably spry in keeping up with changing times. The video, an early favorite on MTV, has gone viral on YouTube; the ringtone earned a No. 1 “gold” ranking in its first year; and Shropshire’s home-based company, Laughing Stock Records, just released a nifty iPhone application based on the song. During the upcoming holiday season alone—more than 30 years after its release—the royalties will still add up to more than a jingle in the singer’s pocket.
No one is more bemused by the “Grandma” phenomenon than Shropshire, a 1964 graduate of Auburn University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. A diminutive man with twinkling eyes, a thatch of snowy hair and a wardrobe heavy on bright red-and-green plaids, he long ago embraced the role of elf.
“If it weren’t for that song, I’d still be worming cats for a living,” he says in his distinctive Kentucky drawl.
Still, though “Grandma” gets most of the press, Shropshire’s varied exploits add up to more than a one-hit wonder.
Born in 1936, Shropshire grew up on a farm in the horse country of Lexington. His father, who shared Elmo’s moniker, was the most famous jockey of his era. Known as “Little Shrop,” he rode more than 70 thoroughbreds to victory—until he grew.
“Then the same thing happened to me later,” says Shropshire junior, who, at 74, now stands about 5-foot-8. “When I was a kid, I was an exercise boy and a jockey until I put on a little weight. You have to weigh less than 115 pounds.”
As a trainer, the young Shropshire broke in a sickly foal called Needles, whose nickname reflected the various medical injections he’d received for broken ribs and pneumonia. Needles became the first Florida horse to win the Kentucky Derby in 1956 and almost swept the Triple Crown. The thoroughbred’s legendary, come-from-behind success launched a boom in the Sunshine State’s horse breeding industry.
When Shropshire was a teen, his parents were killed in a head-on collision. He worked to put himself through college, studying animal husbandry and chemistry at the University of Florida before his selection as one of 10 out-of-state students for Auburn’s rigorous veterinary program. He served as president of the Alpha Psi veterinary fraternity.
“Elmo was a very unusual young man,” remembers Jim Hill, an Auburn classmate who also became a veterinarian and the owner of the racehorse Seattle Slew. “He was an incredible athlete and always reigned as the life of the party, always cool—always fun to be around, but always motivated.”
After graduating, Shropshire worked with horses for a year in Miami and then won a coveted position as a veterinarian and equine inspector at the Belmont Aqueduct and Saratoga racetracks in New York. “It was a veterinarian’s dream job, with a great social life for somebody young and single,” he recalls. But Shropshire was hearing the call of a twangy new muse: the banjo.
“I did not grow up in a musical family, and some people would argue that there is still no musical talent in my family,” he says with a grin. “But one day when I was around 25, I happened to hear ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ on the radio, and it changed my life. I’ll never forget it. I was just astonished that sounds like that could come out of a single instrument.”
So he taught himself to play through intensive mimicry and, in 1967, relocated to the West Coast—just in time for the Summer of Love.
“Most people in San Francisco were not familiar with the original bluegrass from the East,” he says. “They thought Jerry Garcia invented the form. I wanted to fix that.”
While establishing a small-animal clinic in the Bay area, Shropshire helped introduce the old-school music to the locals, playing in a band called Homestead Act and hosting a popular radio show, “The Great San Francisco Bluegrass Experience,” in which he interviewed his heroes, people like North Carolina pickers Earl Scruggs and Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson. He camped it up in rhinestone-studded overalls—“for formal occasions, we might wear black overalls that had tails like a tuxedo,” he says—but the group’s sounds, rehearsed with exacting discipline, were pure and authentic. Patsy Trigg joined the outfit with her high-lonesome vocals, and the band developed a loyal underground following. “We packed the house in joints that sat 15 or 20 people,” he jokes.
One of Shropshire’s early devotees was Joe Wiercinski, a broadcasting student from Pennsylvania.
“There wasn’t much country-inflected music then, just Homestead Act and one or two other groups,” he remembers. “Elmo’s stage presence and humor were so wry and genuinely folksy, so warm and human and humane. His shtick was playing the fish out of water, the rube in the big city—but if you paid attention, you realized this ‘rube’ was likely the smartest person in the room. So I went every week to hear him at whatever smoky saloon he was playing.”
After Shropshire and Trigg married, they started performing as a duo, touring on the casino circuit, where the animal doctor honed his claw-hammer chops and raspy, woodsmoke voice. One night during the holidays in Nevada, a blizzard left another band stranded at the resort where Patsy & Elmo were performing, and all of the musicians took the stage together.
“One of the waiters sent up a note on a cocktail napkin suggesting we play this little novelty song I’d written,” says Randy Brooks, who played in the group. “That’s when Elmo first heard it. If my band hadn’t been stranded there that night, who knows how things would’ve turned out for either of us? Talk about a fluke.”
Brooks goes on to describe how he wrote “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
“So many of the country songs at that time introduced a beloved relative only to kill her off in the third verse, which made me indignant as a songwriter,” he says. “I figured if I could kill off the relative in the first verse and still hold a listener’s attention, that would be an unconventional song. So I got my Scotch-and-water and guitar, and contemplated: ‘How would grandma die at Christmas?’
“To call that process ‘inspiration’ is probably too strong a word. But once Elmo launched it, it started earning me songwriter royalties, which raised my family’s standard of living, and it still gets us both invited to a lot more Christmas parties than we ordinarily would attend.”
Still, the song’s macabre premise has had its detractors through the years.
“One night, I showed up to play at this hot club in San Francisco, and there was a huge crowd outside,” Shropshire says. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be a great night!’ But as soon as I got out of the car, I was accosted by people screaming in my face, ‘What’s so funny about a dead grandma?!’”
Turns out the protesters were part of the Gray Panthers, an activist group for senior citizens, decrying what they called the song’s “ageist” message.
“I felt terrible that people were offended, and I didn’t know what to say to them,” Shropshire says, shrugging helplessly. “The next day it was the front-page story in The San Francisco Chronicle, and then that story went national on the wire services, and the song started getting radio airplay across the country. So while I really felt bad that it made some people angry, which was never our intent, the publicity from that event had the effect of establishing our national profile.”
(The incident later would be cited in a Time magazine editorial as a sign of the era’s sociopolitical hypersensitivity, Brooks notes.)
“We were trying to get major record labels interested,” Shropshire says, “but they would tell us, ‘No, we absolutely hate this song—stop sending it.’ The local radio station played it, then banned it, and then began to play it over and over.”
Meanwhile, Shropshire spent his own money to film a homespun video, which circulated on MTV; singles started selling out at Tower Records; and the controversial song reached No. 1 on the Billboard holiday charts in 1983. Shropshire didn’t profit much from the recording, though, until the following year, when he signed a distribution deal with Epic Records. The company had recently released what would become the biggest-selling album in history: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
“‘Thriller’ came out, and during those few weeks of the holiday season, ‘Grandma’ actually outsold ‘Thriller,’ if you can believe that,” marvels Shropshire, who eventually turned his veterinary practice, the Arguello Pet Hospital, over to a protégé. (It has grown into San Francisco’s largest clinic.)
An ambassador of yuletide cheer, he has toured with Brenda Lee of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” fame and played with Bobby Helms, who did “Jingle Bell Rock.” After some unsettling competition from the meowing “Jingle Cats”—“I’d like to neuter them,” Shropshire famously quipped in an interview—the bluegrass picker with the “nom de nonsense” of “Dr. Elmo” joined Ray Stevens, “Weird Al” Yankovic, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz and Frank Zappa in the pantheon of novelty music, where artful clowning is serious business.
Recently, on a cloudless day in Novato, Calif., where he lives in a charmed clearing nicknamed the “Reindeer Plantation,” Shropshire’s wife, photographer Pam Wendell, walks in with some packages and says, with a gleam in her eye, “Look—fan mail!”
Shropshire opens an envelope to find a compact disc titled “Dead Ninja Christmas,” by the artist Chuck Picklesimer. (Among the tracks: “Reindeer For Breakfast On Christmas” and “I Was a Slave for Psycho-Santa.”)
“I get at least one of these a week from different people hoping I’ll record their material, I guess, or discover them somehow. I know this guy’s work—he does some interesting stuff. But I usually end up writing my own.”
One such solicitation, though, has yielded a fruitful, long-term collaboration.
“Ironically, I had written a song called ‘Christmas Millionaire,’ which was about my wish to write a hit for the holiday,” says Rita Abrams, an Emmy-winning writer whose song “Mill Valley” had climbed the charts. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the guy with the ‘Grandma’ song would sing it?’ I contacted him out of the blue, and he turned out to be the kindest, most delightful person in the world. He went with me to the studio and recorded it. We reconnected later on and realized that we could bounce songwriting ideas off each other and create something we both liked.”
In the past decade, Shropshire and Abrams have co-written hundreds of “comedy carols,” which appear on albums such as “Dr. Elmo’s Twisted Christmas,” “Love, Death and Taxes,” “Up Your Chimney” and “Dr. Elmo Halloween,” in which he “sings the boos.” Over the course of this quirky repertoire, the wordplay has sharpened in clever ways that echo Hollywood composer Johnny Mercer in his lighter moments. For example, in “Santa’s E-mail from Nigeria,” which lampoons the recent trend in cyber-scams, the bankers’ chorus features this rhyme scheme: “When your arrears uprear ya/Like bird flu or diphtheria/Trust Santa won’t bum steer ya/With an e-mail from Nigeria.”
“We had fun with that one,” Shropshire says fondly. “However, radio stations are so pre-formatted and formulaic these days, there just isn’t the market for novelty music that there used to be—which is probably a good thing to most people.”
Shropshire still revels in what he terms the “heartwarmingly grotesque”—one of his favorite numbers is a hymn to “Uncle Johnny’s Glass Eye”—and every year he obliges disc jockeys with an average of 150 steadfastly jolly interviews, including snippets of live singing, during the Christmas season. Now though, he’s beginning to focus more on his musical roots, performing and recording with his band, Wild Blue, and re-learning the old-timey material. This season, Time-Life Inc. plans to release Shropshire’s straightforward, “non-comedic” album, “Bluegrass Christmas.”
“They say they could never duplicate the bell-brass tone of these,” Shropshire says, leisurely plucking and plinking the moon-face of his 1936 Gibson Granada—a twin to the hallowed instrument played by Earl Scruggs.
“The public still views banjo playing as something that minstrels in blackface do. It remains sort of an underground thing, at least here on the West Coast, where nobody cares for it much. I feel compelled to play it more and more lately, even though it demands a certain athleticism that makes it more suitable to a younger player.”
So he practices constantly, when he’s not feeding corn to the herd of tame deer roaming the grounds of the Marin County estate that “Grandma” paid for.
“Besides,” Shropshire adds, without regret, “I may finally have milked all of the humorous puns I can out of Christmas. We’ll see.”