I wish I had an autographed photo of Irving Berlin for every time I’ve been asked, “My nephew (parole officer/cosmetologist/ exorcist) has written a really good song—how can he/she turn it into a hit?”
I always respond: “Do you think if I knew the answer to that question, I’d still be a one-hit wonder after 30 years?”
No carefully followed blueprint could ever replicate the serendipitous evolution of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” from exercise in parody to platinum record to cottage industry.
I dabbled in lyric writing while still in high school. My interest in songwriting gained momentum at Vanderbilt. This activity was purely extracurricular, as was most everything else into which I channeled any serious energy during my Commodore years.
My role as music director at WRVU exposed me to pop music beyond the boundaries of the Top 40 in my native Louisville, Ky. The jukebox at the Pike house was a crash course in rhythm and blues. And four years of breathing the air in Nashville forced me to look beyond the negative connotations I had always attached to country music.
This was a period when one could attend without charge the weekly tapings of Johnny Cash’s ABC show at the Ryman Auditorium, with guest artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Country’s old guard like Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers were still taping weekly syndicated shows. During breaks in the filming, an aspiring songwriter could pick the brains of established tunesmiths like Dolly Parton and Tom T. Hall.
An enterprising student with his ear to the ground and enough moxie could even walk in the unlocked back door of the RCA studios at midnight and stumble upon the likes of Simon and Garfunkel recording tracks for the Bridge over Troubled Water album.
Gaining familiarity with country music, and finding that many country album cuts were … well, awful, I began to try my hand at writing and calling on publishing houses.
My delusions of adequacy were quickly doused by Music Row publishers, whose standard line after listening to my tape—with their feet on their desk and a cigar in their mouth—was, “I don’t believe I heard anything I can use.”
In retrospect, these early songs were atrocious, and I’ve spent four decades actively forgetting them. One that lingers in memory is “Niagara Falls,” wherein a young lady named Niagara suffers from a sort of speech defect—she can’t say no.
My career as a writer of Porter Wagoner B-sides ended before it began. But, thankfully, I didn’t give up songwriting altogether.
For reasons I can no longer remember, but certainly with no expectation of commercial success, I started writing novelty tunes. This was the heyday of Laugh-In and Hee Haw, and perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by the popular humor of the time. At any rate, in my senior-year attic apartment on Hayes Street—soon to be leveled to make way for Loews Vanderbilt Hotel—I composed the lyrics to “Nudeness Is Lewdness,” a less-than-pithy take on the culture of miniskirts and see-through blouses. I sent this to a fellow fledgling songwriter friend at Southern Methodist University, and he set the words to music. (I suspect my co-writer seldom performs this song anymore now that he is a respected Methodist minister.)
I was sufficiently pleased with the outcome of this collaboration—and the subsequent appearance of my name in Library of Congress records as a copyright holder—to send my friend a second novelty effort, “The Garbage Dumpster Took My Love Away,” which perhaps had been inspired by the fact that one of my freshman hallmates had been a fellow named Dempster, whose family held the patent on the Dempster-Dumpster system. Talk about your intellectual property!
After several weeks of silence from my SMU buddy, I inferred that either he was actually studying in college, or that my new lyrics were too embarrassing for him to acknowledge. Taking the hint, I wrote my own mediocre melody.
I managed to graduate from Vanderbilt in 1970 and, after a summer spent performing with a USO show in Vietnam, settled in Dallas. This must have been right in the midst of the Great Entertainment Drought because bands started inviting me onstage to sing “Nudeness” and “Dumpster.” Fueled by velvet hammers and frozen strawberry daiquiris, audiences unwisely rewarded my bad behavior, and I was encouraged to continue writing songs with punch lines.
Simultaneously watching the World Series on television and listening to Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me [Lord]” on the radio inspired “Will You Be Ready at the Plate When Jesus Throws the Ball,” which, while not my best-known work, does hold the distinction of being the only song of mine available for purchase in a gift shop at the Smithsonian.
“The Fly” asked the musical question: What if the classic horror film had been a musical comedy? “The Mexican Waltz” mined the great untapped lyric potential of travelers’ intestinal distress. “Little Texas Rose” was my first song to be accused of containing an element of pathos. (“She’s a topless dancer at the Déjà Vu, showin’ off her assets to me and you; she puts herself through school by makin’ old men drool.”)
“Bicentennial Man,” written at the height of the nation’s bicentennial-mania, featured the Groucho-esqe recollections of a 200-year-old man who, like a Forrest Gump on steroids, had managed to be present for practically every significant American historical milestone from Washington’s crossing of the Delaware to the invention of the stewardess.
And then in the waning weeks of 1976, if memory serves, the notion of a Christmas song was born—an infant sired by Merle Haggard and carried to term by Johnnie Walker Black.
I was listening to a borrowed copy of Merle’s Christmas album one afternoon when one song in particular caught my attention. I’ve not heard the song in years, but as I recall, “Grandma’s Homemade Christmas Card” told the story of an artistic grandmother who designed beautiful holiday cards. Each year the family eagerly awaited the arrival of said card and displayed it proudly and conspicuously amongst their holiday decorations.
As the song progressed, I anticipated its conclusion. Country music at the time was awash with songs wherein a beloved relative was revered for two verses, only to be killed off in the third. I was sure that was where this one was headed. I chastised Merle, calling him trite and manipulative. I said to him, though he couldn’t hear me, “Merle, if you were half the songwriter you think you are, you would admit that Grandma was deceased in the very first line of the song—and then if you could come up with three verses and a chorus, you’d really have something!”
A few hours later, still dwelling on the ill-fated elder and determined to do better by her, I crawled into bed with a pen, a notepad, and a scotch and water. I asked myself what would turn out to be the million-dollar question: How might Grandma meet her demise in a manner uniquely seasonal?
My first and final answer: Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Walking home from our house Christmas Eve. What rhymes with eve? I was off to the races. I patterned my song structure after some of Merle’s hits; astute listeners will hear a familiar guitar lick here, a chord turnaround there.
I used my own family for inspiration. My grandmother wore a wig. She did sometimes drink herself happy. My grandfather and his brothers drank beer, played cards, and watched football on Christmas afternoon.
I wrote the chorus and first verse before falling asleep, and then dashed off the final two verses in the shower the next day.
“Grandma” was never the most requested of my compositions among Texas audiences. But for some reason—perhaps because I regularly played the Hyatt Lake Tahoe during the holidays—the casino crowd took a liking to it. At one point a Reno/Tahoe entertainment newspaper featured my group, Young Country, on the front page with the headline “This Group Sings About Killer Reindeer at the Hyatt.”
In December 1978 we had just completed such an engagement and loaded up the van to head back to Dallas for Christmas. But when we cleared the snow from the windshield and attempted to pull out of our parking place at the Hyatt, we discovered that the brakes were frozen and we weren’t going anywhere.
We checked back into the hotel and seized the opportunity to catch the act that had followed us in the Sugar Pine Lounge: Elmo & Patsy, the bluegrass equivalent to Sonny & Cher.
Elmo and Patsy Shropshire and their band had developed a loyal following on the California harvest festival and northern Nevada lounge circuits. They even had a fan club. Though they were based in California’s wine country, the Shropshires had appropriate bluegrass pedigrees: Elmo was a large-animal veterinarian originally from Kentucky, and Patsy was raised in Fayetteville, Tenn., before escaping to become a flight attendant. They were tireless showmen who entertained with the same jovial enthusiasm whether the crowd numbered five or 500.
Hyatt employees tipped them off to our presence in the lounge, and they graciously invited us up to share the stage. I will always be deeply indebted to the person who chose that moment to send forward a napkin on which was scrawled a request for “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
I performed the song, with Elmo & Patsy playing along. As the set ended, they cornered me and asked if I’d record “Grandma” on their dressing-room cassette recorder because “It’s our kind of song.”
I was happy enough just to think that another group wanted to perform a song of mine and perhaps occasionally mention my name onstage. But I was not expecting that a couple of months later, I’d receive a tape in the mail of a studio recording of “Grandma.” The Shropshires intended to sell a single of the song from the stage during the 1979 holiday season.
Certainly, that would have been enough of a thrill—seeing my name as the writer on the label of a 45-rpm record. But then a fan took a copy of the record to longtime KSFO morning jock Gene Nelson in San Francisco. Nelson was an institution. He had emceed the Beatles’ swan song concert at Candlestick Park in 1966, and had been building his Bay Area audience ever since.
He put “Grandma” on the air and unleashed an unlikely monster. Tower Records in San Francisco immediately sold out of all copies Elmo & Patsy had consigned to them. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about reaction to the song. The wire services picked up the story, and soon newspapers and television newscasts all around the country were reporting on the quirky West Coast holiday hubbub. ABC Radio fed the song down the line to its affiliates so they could run sound bites with their stories.
For the next four years, “Grandma” chugged along with independent distribution and a growing cult following. Then fate intervened again.
Through the years Billboard magazine has published an on-again, off-again holiday music chart. Luckily for me, in the early ’80s, it was on again. On a December night in 1983, I was standing at a newsstand in front of Madison Square Garden when I read that “Grandma” had overtaken “White Christmas” for the top spot on the holiday hit list. The ensuing victory dance was surely eccentric enough to gain me honorary New Yorker status.
The Billboard recognition finally convinced Epic Records to give the old girl the major label treatment, opening doors to many more radio stations and record outlets. As more years went by, toy companies licensed the song to play in stuffed reindeer. “Grandma” appeared in film and television soundtracks. References to the song appeared in comic strips, game shows, greeting cards and even Trivial Pursuit. And television producers vied for the right to create an animated Christmas special based on the lyrics.
The producer who eventually prevailed was fond of telling me that if he helmed the project, I’d never have to worry about sending my kids to college. Now that both of them are there—one at Vanderbilt—I often wonder if I should send him the bills.
Through the years I’ve learned that a song is like a child, in that you give birth to it, nurture, it and introduce it to the world, but once it goes off on its own, you no longer always know what it’s up to. That’s how I feel when I learn from a royalty statement that my “child” has been to visit countries that I previously thought only existed in fiction, engaging in activities of which I was theretofore unaware.
There are many other children in my catalog—masterpieces like “Put a Bag Over Your Head (and Let’s Make Love”) and “I’d Rather Be Sailin’ with Governor Palin (Than Fightin’ All Day with You”). But there’s only one “Grandma.”
In the interest of truth in journalism, I must reveal that I misjudged Merle Haggard. Had I finished listening to his song before beginning my own, I’d have found that his grandma survived the third verse without a scratch. She lives on—obscure, perhaps, but unscathed.
Finally, for those still seeking songwriting advice, all I can say with certainty is this: If you’re only going to have one hit—make it a Christmas song.