New Orleans native John “Papa” Gros (pronounced “grow”) has been celebrating the city’s culture with the world for over three decades. His third solo album Central City will release on April 17, and it is the latest chapter in the singer and pianist’s lifelong tribute to the Crescent City and its diverse musical legacy.
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Gros’ feel-good originals hold their own alongside his takes on beloved songs by Allen Toussaint, Lloyd Price, and John Prine. The stellar supporting cast, which includes Papa’s former boss, bassist George Porter Jr. (The Meters), as well as drummer Herlin Riley (Wynton Marsalis) and trumpeter Mark Braud (Harry Connick Jr.), has defined the cultural, historical, and musical significance of New Orleans for generations.
For the debut of his cover of John Prine’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” we asked Papa Gros why he chose that track and his answer was too thorough not to share in full:
“I played twelve years at the Original Tropical Isle, at a little hole in the wall bar one door off Bourbon St. at Toulouse St. We played Yacht Rock before it became a genre, lots of Jimmy Buffet, soft rock hits from the 70’s and assorted off the beaten path favorites. This is where I was introduced to John Prine’s music and have been a devoted disciple ever since. I have many favorite’s but “Please Don’t Bury Me” was my first love. His storytelling inspires me with its simplistic word play, satire and brutal honesty. I often wonder if Randy Newman and Prine are related.
During these formative Bourbon Street years, I learned many lessons, good and bad. A real-life music education was one of the best positive’s, meeting my wife, the other. I learned many songs from different genre’s, decades and regions while also diving head first into New Orleans music. I was learning everything from Van Morrison to the Eagles, Hank Williams Sr. to Johnny Cash, CCR to Tom Petty, Fats Domino to Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair to Dr. John. I was digging deep, going under the hood, dissecting these amazing songs finding out what made them great. Soon I began to separate the song from the sound.
It became apparent to me the songwriting of the 1950’s was nearly identical, melodically and harmonically, across genre’s with the only difference being the regionalized phrasing and rhythms. It’s why the New Orleans sound is different from the St. Louis sound and the Memphis sound is different from the Chicago sound. It became my exercise to exploit songs in the New Orleans tradition. So, fast forward twenty years, when the calling came to make Central City, I knew “Please Don’t Bury Me” had to be included because of the similarities it had with traditional New Orleans jazz songs like “Bourbon Street Parade,” “Didn’t He Ramble” and many more. It’s my guess that Herlin Riley (drummer), Mark Braud (trumpet), Don Vappie (banjo), Tim Laughlin (clarinet), all pillars of the New Orleans Trad Jazz scene, had no idea it was a folk/country cover. I doubt they had even heard the song, let alone were familiar with John Prine. I didn’t tell them anything. I handed them a chord chart and told them to play two beat trad jazz. That’s just what they did! It’s amazing how this song speaks in the New Orleans sound. The playfulness of the lyrics are perfectly complimented by the spirited interplay of the jazz band.
The most important reason why I recorded “Please Don’t Bury Me” is I have four friends who have been in need of organ transplants. One had a successful liver transplant, a second is in recovery from a successful lung transplant, and two friends are struggling on the list waiting for new kidneys. The lyrics in the chorus say it best, “Please don’t bury me, down in that cold, cold ground. I’d rather have them cut me up and pass me all around. Throw my brain in a hurricane and the blind can have my eyes. The deaf can take both my ears, if they don’t mind the size.” If, I can use John Prine’s song to bring awareness to donating organs, help my friends live a long happy life AND put smiles on people faces, then I’ve done something good. Please donate your organs.”