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Musicians who care

Posted by Ralph Ranalli April 3, 2008 08:34 AM

Twenty area musicians, including singer-songwriter Eric Salt of Watertown, will perform a benefit Concert for the Troops on Saturday to raise funds for troop care packages.
(Photo courtesy of Beth Oram)


(Note: This is a special online exclusive version of the Globe West Arts column)

The first time that Bobby Blair decided to honor the war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan with his own handmade memorial, he had no idea how long it would take him. He just sat down and wrote the name, age, rank, and state of every recently fallen US service member on an individual poster-board sign.

"By midnight my magic markers had run out. In the morning, I got some more. By noontime I was done. Then I went out and put them up," said Blair, who placed the placards along the roadside in his hometown of Holliston. "I suppose I should have asked someone. But I didn't. I just did it, and it went over well."

And so it's been since the start of the war. Each Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the 56-year-old Vietnam War veteran, whom locals call the honorary mayor of Mudville, writes until his hands are stiff and smeared with ink, and he doesn't ask for help. He's hand-lettered nearly every sign, even the year that the memorial to 1900 fallen service men and women stretched 34.4 miles into seven different towns. So it's fitting that Blair would quietly go it alone with another project as well, until help found him last spring.

"We all know the signs. Usually, you drive by and your heart just breaks when you see them. But last year, I just kept thinking, 'What can I do?'" said Holliston resident Ruthann Baler. "So I called Bobby. I thought he might need help with the signs, but he surprised me. A lot of people don't know this, but not only does he put the signs up, he sends weekly care packages to the troops and he's been doing that every week for the past five years. So, he said he needed help with that."

Baler, 48, was the right person to ask. A press consultant and a singer-songwriter, she soon had a 20-act fund-raising concert in the works -- and then another and another. All told, they have raised $2,000.

At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, 20 area performers once again will take the stage at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post for the next Concert for the Troops. They hope to raise another $3,000 for the care packages for local members of the military, and to also collect essentials (like razors and toothpaste) and treats (like pickles or dried fruit) to pack inside them.

Performers range from experienced singer-songwriters such as Tom Driscoll of Holliston, Dawn Kenny of Waltham, and Dan Cloutier of Ashland (who backs up Richie Havens at Amazing Things in Framingham the following week) to budding high school talents. Each will perform two songs.

"Monetary-wise, it's been a godsend," said Blair, who, with the help of American Legion Post 47, sends one package to each US service member from Holliston once a week. "Right now we're up to nine local men [on active duty], the most we've ever had. So, it's gotten expensive. It can cost up to $25 per package just for postage."

But costs won't stop this retired postal carrier. Blair simply remembers all too well what it's like to go without the daily necessities in a war zone.

"One thing they always ran out of in Vietnam was toilet paper, and boy, you don't know how essential toilet paper can be. We used to end up using the Stars and Stripes, which is a military newspaper, and, trust me, it wasn't Charmin," said Blair.

Saturday's performers include Jim Cormier, Katie Frassinelli, Ira Kittrell, and John Powers, all of Holliston; Joe Fredette and Alan Crane, both of Framingham; Dawn Kenney of Waltham, Eric Salt of Watertown, Craig Sonnenfeld of Brookline, Kim Jennings of Worcester, Tom Tincler of Walpole, and Phil Kissinger of Foxborough.

Concert for the Troops will take place 7:30 p.m. Saturday, at the Holliston VFW, 310 Woodland St. Admission by donation (kids free) includes refreshments. Cash bar. Items needed for care packages listed at Baler's web site. Anyone seeking more information is urged to call 781-254-7449.

-- Denise Taylor

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