Album launch, PBS special signal new chapter for Chatham Rabbits

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On a cool spring day in early May, Sarah McCombie was a flurry of activity, multitasking and carving out time for a quick interview over Zoom.

She was busy planning a concert celebrating a new album, promoting a series on PBS North Carolina, and preparing to set out on a summer-long concert tour across the United States with her husband, Austin McCombie.

Together, they make up the Americana duo Chatham Rabbits.

The tour celebrates the duo’s third album, “If You See Me Riding By,” which launches on June 3 at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw and represents a coming-out party of sorts for Chatham Rabbits. Over the last four years, the duo has become a well-known name in central North Carolina.

Now, it’s time for them to spread their wings.

“We want to continue growing our audience,” Sarah said, “and while it may sound a little extreme to say we want to become a household name, we would love to be able to go to places like Idaho, and have people say, ‘Chatham Rabbits, oh yeah — let’s go see them tonight.’”

That Sarah Osborne, a former music teacher who grew up in Bynum, and Austin McCombie, a former financial planner from Wilmington, would even find each other and form a band is by itself something of a miracle. Both are musicians, but 10 years ago, when they first crossed paths, their styles could not have been farther apart. Sarah, a student at Peace College, played folk music with the old-time trio South Carolina Broadcasters; Austin, at N.C. State, was a musician in DASH, a popular electropop band in Raleigh.

“We were trying to be college students, academically,” Sarah said, “and we were trying to hustle with our bands, and because we were in totally different music scenes, we never crossed paths.”

Until that fateful evening when Austin and some friends showed up for a Mandolin Orange performance at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill. The South Carolina Broadcasters opened the show, and when Austin laid eyes on Sarah and listened to her weave stories in her sweet soprano voice, he was immediately attracted to her.

Sarah didn’t know he was there.

He first reached out to her in a message on her band’s Facebook page; she says she brushed him off with a formal acknowledgement and a polite “thank you.” That might have been the end of it, but he tried again about a year later, Sarah says, and this time she agreed to meet him for coffee.

As they say, the rest is history.

Today, at age 29, Sarah and Austin share songwriting credits and vocals. She’s the lead singer and banjoist; he provides vocals and adds melodies on his acoustic guitar.

‘We’re not fancy’

Over the years, Chatham Rabbits has embodied the stories the McCombies were raised listening to and the stories they have lived.

“Growing up, Austin and I were both creative kids, and I have so many notebooks filled with lyrics, notes and ideas,” she said. “We think of ourselves as barebones musicians because we’re not fancy, but we do believe our strength is in our songwriting, and that’s where we try to put our energy.”

The duo’s songbook is filled with family history and North Carolina stories.

Their first album, recorded in 2019 at Rubber Room Records in Chapel Hill, is titled “All I Want from You,” described by music critics as “a mature ensemble of southern themes.”

“Yoke Is Easy, The Burden Is Full,” was Chatham Rabbits’ second album and continues the duo’s stories in song, weaving the fabric of the past to the present. It was recorded at a friend’s studio at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia and was scheduled for launch in mid-2020.

But COVID-19 had other plans.

When the pandemic caused theaters and music venues to shut down, Chatham Rabbits still had a card to play, and reckoned if their fans couldn’t come to their shows, they would take their music to their fans. So, they launched the album during their socially distanced “Stay at Home Tour.” Austin upfitted the duo’s Sprinter touring van with solar panels and a sound system, built a mobile soundstage on a trailer hitched to the bumper, and the pair traveled to communities across North Carolina, entertaining entire neighborhoods one by one.

Their newest album, written during the pandemic, was recorded at Smith Mountain Lake as the world began emerging from its COVID-19 cocoon. Like newly transformed butterflies, Chatham Rabbits emerged with a new look and a multi-layered sound, featuring a full back-up band of accomplished musicians the McCombies recruited from their large circle of friends.

Sarah promises that despite the larger sound the bones of their music are still in place.

“Austin and I are still Chatham Rabbits, but we are getting offers to play bigger stages and longer sets, and it’s so nice for the audiences in the larger settings to hear our songs the way they sound on the album,” she said.

The McCombies have set a goal to play in all of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

In a new PBS-North Carolina series called “On the Road with Chatham Rabbits,” the McCombies trace their humble beginnings from their days living in a historic mill house in Bynum before selling it in 2018, quitting their day jobs, and spending life traveling to shows in a restored Winnebago that Austin purchased off Craig’s List.

“On the Road with Chatham Rabbits” shows what life is like for Sarah and Austin — the ups and downs, good times, hard times, their songwriting process, and at the heart of it all, their music. The limited series airs on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. and streams on the PBS North Carolina website.

At the end of June, PBS-North Carolina plans to broadcast a special full-length concert filmed last October, Sarah said.

As the McCombies’ star continues to rise, there’s one thing Sarah wants everyone to know, and that’s the correct name of their duo — Chatham Rabbits, and not The Chatham Rabbits.

Sarah laughs as she explains how she and Austin crowdsourced that name.

“We went onto a community listserv in Bynum and asked the participants what we should call our little duo so we’d have something to put on posters and that sort of thing,” she said. “And people kept suggesting ideas like ‘Chatham Bunnies,’ and ‘Rabbits String Band,’ and the ultimate winning name ‘Chatham Rabbits.’”

Through it all, Sarah learned Chatham County history and the power of divine intervention.

“I did some Googling and found out the county was once home to huge wild meat rabbits that people would hunt and sell to kitchens in large cities,” she said.

Her research also revealed their home in Bynum was a 100-year-old mill house built in 1910, and she and Austin were the first family to live there since the original family moved out.

“We moved there in 2015, so it had been through lots of generations of the same family before us,” she said. “Then we found out that the original patriarch of the family was the guitar player for The Chatham Rabbits String Band in the 1920s, and that’s how we knew we had to be Chatham Rabbits because we were living in that house.”

Sarah views Austin and herself as a kind of second generation of Chatham Rabbits.

Besides a few early playdates, the upcoming summer tour marks the first major Chatham Rabbits outing since the pandemic started, and Sarah is enjoying a taste of freedom — freedom that includes a big move.

The McCombies are selling the little 11-acre farm in Siler City they purchased after their year on the road. They are moving to Guilford County, where they’ll be the latest in a long line of Sarah’s ancestors to own and nurture the 62 acres that have been in her family since 1753.

“We had a chance to buy the family farm and decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we went for it,” she said.

As a bonus, there will be plenty of room for the McCombie critters to roam, including Ruby, a hound dog who loves to howl to the sounds of Sarah’s banjo picking, and Biscuit, their cat. They’ll also move their three horses, a small herd of cows, and a flock of chickens, a feat that Sarah guarantees will be an adventure.

“One of my good friends has a horse trailer and I’ve already told her on moving day we’re going to be making lots of trips,” Sarah joked. “Plus, the cows have never been on a trailer before, so it’s going to be a whole situation. I want PBS to come out and film it because I know it will make great television.”

The move to the Guilford County farm is bittersweet for Sarah and Austin. Even though they’ll only be a county or so away, they will never be far from home — and they’ll always be Chatham Rabbits.

Chatham Rabbits album launch: how to attend

The performance is at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the showtime’s at 8. Ticket price is $28.

Visit the Chatham Rabbits website for other tour dates, merchandise and access to their Patreon site.

Their show, “On the Road with Chatham Rabbits,” airs on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on PBS-North Carolina and streams on the station’s website.

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