A Chat With Randy Brooks, the Guy Who Wrote "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer"
I attended the Oral Fixation "Cold Turkey" show at the MAC last Tuesday night, mainly because Observer copy editor and beer enthusiast Jesse Hughey was going to be reading, and he ended up getting some of the biggest laughs of the night, from a crowd that took in some pretty dark tales. Also notable was Dallas singer-songwriter Randy Brooks. I did a double-take when I looked at his bio on the program. He is in "pool party" band the Bad Monkeys. He is the "recorded voice" of the American Airlines AAdvantage program. He wrote "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer."
When I was growing up in South Florida, one of the biggest stations in Fort Lauderdale was Y100. You know, the kind of station with borderline sexist morning jocks and Friday 5pm rush-hour kick-offs scored by Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend," jackhammer sound effects and slide-whistles. One Christmas Eve -- I forget what year but it was definitely the '80s -- they played that Randy Brooks song for 24 hours. You know, back when radio stations could do ridiculous tests of endurance like that.
"I had a DJ friend, I think he was up in Des Moines, who was fired from a station for playing the song 27 times in a row," Brooks says by phone from Nashville, where he is recording his debut album.
In moderation, that song, which was performed by husband-and-wife duo Elmo & Patsy, is one of the generally unoffensive "newer" Christmas songs, like Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" or 69 Boyz's "What You Want For Christmas."
On stage at Oral Fixation, Brooks performed a new song, "It's Halloween (A Christmas Song)," about how the holiday season seems to get longer and longer every year. He said he initially thought of it as a "throwaway song," and as a follow-up of sorts to "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," it keeps the sense of humor very dry, the chorus repeating that Christmas is only "55 days away" while gently skewing American consumers' cognitive dissonance.
"I saw people who had their trees up and lit [after Halloween], and it's stupid," Brooks says, adding that he's always been a fan of Christmas music, but "now that it means a paycheck to me, even more so. We're all trying to recapture that magic. But that's too early to catch when [the temperature's] still in the 80s."
As for his own favorite Christmas songs, he says it's hard to beat "White Christmas," another generally unoffensive song. So, where did "Grandma" come from?
"It came from a Merle Haggard Christmas song I heard, called "Grandma's Christmas Card," and this was a song about a grandma who was an artist, and every year the family would await her Christmas card. This was a period in country music where the trend was to have a beloved relative die in the last verse. You know, two verses about how great they were, and then they're dead. And I thought that was where is song was going, and so that night I decided to write the song the way I thought Merle might write it."
Did the song take off right away?
I wrote it in 1979. As soon as it was played on the radio, it was a hit, but in limited markets. For a couple years, they hired an indie distributor to get the record out, but it wasn't until 1984, the year Epic released it, that it really started going where records can go.
Has there ever been a period where you hated the song, or didn't want to play it?
There was a period when I didn't want to play it. I always sensed disappointment with a crowd when I would play it; people said it didn't sound like the original. But I've found in these songwriter circles that when you start to get to the germ of it, to the history, that's when people are engaged.
Have there been any notable covers?
The Rovers, who used to be called the Irish Rovers, they did a version. Some band in Finland cut it in Finnish years ago. A country guy, Cledus T. Judd, did a version. There's that Bob Rivers guy, who did "Osama Got Run Over By a Reindeer." Before or after the Super Bowl one year, there was that "Chargers Got Run Over By the Niners" song.