Bud Kennedy

41 years ago: The real story (and granny) behind ‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer’

Home Is Where The Heart Is featuring Randy Brooks

It began in a Dallas barroom, 40 years ago: The real story (and granny) of 'Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer'. Songwriter Randy Brooks tells the back story about his Kentucky family, and sings the novelty song that has made him famous (infamous?
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It began in a Dallas barroom, 40 years ago: The real story (and granny) of 'Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer'. Songwriter Randy Brooks tells the back story about his Kentucky family, and sings the novelty song that has made him famous (infamous?

The best-known Christmas song from Texas has it all: elves, eggnog, Santa and a runaway sleigh and reindeer that flattened poor Grandma.

Forty-one years ago this month, young Dallas folk singer Randy Brooks and his band needed a funny holiday tune to keep the crowd’s attention in a busy steakhouse and lounge off Greenville Avenue.

A hokey Merle Haggard country song got him thinking: “The beloved figure always dies in the last verse,” he said, “so I figured I’d kill her off in the first line.”

For Brooks, the night launched him into novelty-song fame (or infamy).

For the rest of us, it launched four decades of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

His real-life Kentucky grandmother liked her bourbon, he said.

“She would have laughed at the song harder than anyone,” said Brooks, now 70 and retired from a career training customer service workers at American Airlines in Fort Worth.

Katherine Grall of Louisville died in 1972. The family called her “Dot Dot,” which was short for Dorothy. (Which was not even her name.)

Five years later, in 1977, Brooks remembered her lush brunette wig and eggnog habit when he and his band, Young Country, were coming up with new songs.

The way banjo player Rick Sparks remembers it, Brooks first tested “Grandma” in Italy, of all places, with the band on a USO tour of military bases.

“They wanted one more song, and Randy said, ‘OK, I’ve got one,’ ” said Sparks, now a resident of Virginia City, Nev.

“They didn’t know what to think.”

Brooks already had sung his other novelty songs: “Will You Be Ready at the Plate When Jesus Throws the Ball?” or “The Garbage Dumpster Took My Lover Away.”

That December, he officially premiered “Grandma” when the band played the long-gone Railhead steakhouse-bar near Park Lane.

“When you’re singing in bars,” he said, “novelty songs get people’s attention.”

Young Country singer Cheryl Cleavenger, 67, of Coppell remembers the night.

“Randy said, ‘I have this Christmas song.’ … We thought it was hysterically funny.”

The lounge crowd of about 100 was “a little stunned,” she said.

Sparks said, “They thought he was crazy.”

“We had a good time with it,” Cleavenger said: “We never thought it would amount to any more than that.”

But it took an extra splash of luck to make “Grandma” a hit.

In winter 1979, Young Country had been performing in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where the local newspaper had headlined, “This Band Sings About Killer Reindeer.”

They were going to head home, but their van’s brakes were frozen. Back at their resort hotel, they met the incoming act, California singers Elmo and Patsy Shropshire.

They heard “Grandma” and took it home to cut a record in San Francisco.

“What if the brakes hadn’t gone out on the van?” Brooks asked.

“I’m like George Bailey living a charmed life.”

Gwen Stefani sang it with Chelsea Handler on her NBC Christmas special. It’s turning up in the NBC show “The Good Place,” Brooks said.

He’s back from two trips to Nashville this month and will play New Orleans for New Year’s with his current band, the Bad Monkeys.

“I’m nobody until December,” Brooks said.

He paraphrased artist Andy Warhol.

“You know that line about how everybody gets 15 minutes of fame? I get 15 minutes every December.”

You can say there’s no such thing as Santa.

But as for Randy Brooks, he believes.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

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