It’s the holiday season, a time of decorated trees, wrapped gifts, family dinners — and Christmas music. In two separate radio surveys conducted in 2007, the one song that was at the top of both the most liked and the most hated holiday tune list was “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” The song was first played on the radio in 1979 and is probably known by just about everyone. What may be less known is that Dr. Elmo Shropshire, who recorded the song with his then-wife Patsy and his bluegrass band, was a musician and veterinarian living in Novato, where he still lives today.
1. How did you come up with the concept for the song? I was playing in Lake Tahoe and this friend of mine, Randy Brooks, came to see our show. Afterwards he said, “I have a song that would be perfect for you!” I handed him my guitar and said, “Let’s hear it.” And he played “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and I said I’d do it.
2. Was he surprised with what happened to the song after it was recorded? We were all surprised. Most of us who were involved with it thought it was going to be funny for a little while. After I made the recording, I didn’t know what to do with it. If you wanted to press any vinyl copies, 500 was the least amount that you could press. Thought I’d end up with 490 of ’em in my garage after I gave a few of them to friends as kind of a gag gift for Christmas. Our drummer’s father was an opera singer and a friend of Gene Nelson, my favorite morning DJ on KSFO in San Francisco at the time. So the drummer gave him a copy of it.
3. And after that? I was on my way to work one morning and Nelson was on the radio. He said, “We played a song a little while a go and a lot of people called in and said they wanted to hear it again. A lot of other people said they never wanted to hear it again. So if we get 50 requests, we’ll play it.” So I’m thinking, “What song could possibly be like that?” He comes back on and says, “We got the 50th request for that song, so here it is …” Suddenly I hear myself on the radio for the first time. That was really a big thrill for me.
4. What did it do for you in terms of your career? After that song came out, I was much more popular at Christmas. I was still working at the veterinary hospital to make my living, though. The rest of the year everybody forgot that I had a band and a good act. So it kind of killed my bluegrass career. But it made me someone who became known in the recording industry.
5. What are some of your favorite Christmas songs? My favorite Christmas songs are “The Christmas Song” — Chestnuts roasting on an open fire … — and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I wrote a parody of that with Rita Abrams called “Have Yourself a Chubby Little Christmas.”
6. Have you heard of people singing “Grandma” when they’ve gone caroling? Everybody tells me that’s their favorite song to sing when they go caroling.
7. You live in Novato — any particular favorite Marin haunts where you like to hang out or eat? One of our favorite dinner places is in San Rafael: the Falafel Hut. We like kind of funky stuff and the food is fantastic there. It’s homey and very easygoing.
8. Any advice for someone who might be interested in putting out a Christmas song? This is one thing that I believe: The “Grandma” song has Grandpa watching football, the eggnog, the goose, blue and silver candles — it has all the trappings of Christmas but with this bizarre twist. So I think if you’re going to do a Christmas song, you have to keep the traditional in it and then look for something that throws people for a little bit of a loop.