“We know we’re not the cool kids,” concedes Austin McCombie, who forms one half of the Bynum-based acoustic duo Chatham Rabbits. His bandmate, Sarah Osborne McCombie, agrees, joking about her conservative outfit—she bought her skirt while traveling to play a recent gig at a Mennonite community in the Shenandoah Valley—after browsing through the fashionable wares at Raleigh’s Edge of Urge boutique.
“Instead of trying to fight that wholesome image,” he continues, “we just lean into it.”
Part of that image includes the band’s name itself, which honors a century of Bynum history. Chatham County was once the nation’s leading producer of meat rabbits, and a Bynum mill sponsored a string band that took the name of Chatham Rabbits. The McCombies, who married in 2015, discovered that a previous owner of their mill home, Randolph “Suzie” Riddle, was a guitar player in the original Chatham Rabbits. According to Austin, their neighbors “sort of elected that name for us.” The duo’s tunes are rooted in the tradition of the original Rabbits while reflecting more contemporary folk storytelling with modern pop sensibilities.
Sarah Osborne met Austin McCombie at a Mandolin Orange show in 2013—she had performed with the old-time opening act, the South Carolina Broadcasters, and around the same time, he played keys in the electropop outfit Dash. The two began sharing songs they’d written apart from their main projects. Though they discovered common themes in their writing despite their disparate musical backgrounds, the McCombies intended only to complete a demo of their takes on a few traditionals when they began recording with Jerry Brown more than a year ago.
Instead, Brown’s encouragement led to them assembling nine original tunes, along with a cover of the Flatt & Scruggs classic “The Good Things (Outweigh the Bad),” for their full-length debut, All I Want From You. With mentions of hound dogs and cotton fields mixed between references to Surry County and Cape Fear, a particular sense of place permeates the record, none more obviously than “Blue Ridge Mountain Home.”
Taking a broader Southern perspective, “Bugle Boy” is cast in the Civil War era, while “Holy Dirt” reflects gospel sensibilities. The warm, bucolic nature of opener “Come Home” belies its despondent tale; it’s reminiscent of early Mandolin Orange, whom the McCombies credit with helping inspire their leap of faith.
“They’ve done such a good job making it a success. They invited us over for dinner one night and just poured in a lot of wisdom about what it’s like as a young duo,” Sarah says.
Last spring, the McCombies were already frustrated with a work-life balance that left little time to see each other, let alone play music together. So they decided to quit their jobs. Austin’s job as a financial planner kept him on the road, while Sarah was growing unsatisfied teaching music at a Montessori school.
“I couldn’t see myself continuing down that path, and, as cliché as it sounds, we knew we wouldn’t regret it if we did [quit our jobs], but we would regret it if we didn’t,” Sarah remembers.
“We were fortunate because we’d saved enough money so we had at least six months to give it 110%,” Austin adds. “Every single day, we could call venues and do whatever it took to make it. A lot of people don’t get to do that.”
They got a lucky bounce when Austin found an incredible bargain on a Sprinter van via Craiglist. The couple had been planning to move into a Winnebago before finding the considerably more efficient touring vehicle. That allowed them to keep their Bynum residence as a home base, though they’ve still got enough room to bring along their hound dog, Ruby, when traveling.
Austin’s former life as a financial planner reveals itself when he discusses the numbers he and Sarah needed to succeed and the planning that it takes. But he also knows the value of starting with slow, local growth before expanding regionally.
“The measure of success is going somewhere and making even one fan that will come back,” he reasons. “The minute I saw a group of people come back to see us, that’s when I knew we could do it, because we did something they wanted to see again and I never had that before.”
Sarah notes that they have to make smart decisions for the long-term, like turning down a high paying slot at a prestigious festival in California in favor of a sizable gig that will help them build their local audience. Along with managing all of the logistical duties of a full-time touring act, that financial pressure can threaten to distract from the band’s main purpose. But the two say they try to build enough time into their schedule so that they don’t get burnt out and can continue to write new material.
“[Songwriting] is the number one priority, but because of life getting in the way, that’s always the last thing to get done,” Austin says.
With Chatham Rabbits becoming his primary focus, he’s also found that process now involves developing a clearer direction for the future versus the scattershot approach that led to their debut.
“We can really tap into why we’re writing what we’re writing, who we’re writing about, and what the theme of this next record is going to be.”
The McCombies admit some shock at still being able to pay all their bills while fully committing to Chatham Rabbits for the past six months, which has found them playing a variety of gigs spanning clubs, churches, nursing homes, weddings, and parties.
“When you’re doing this full time, you get yourself in some strange situations,” Austin explains, contrasting recent the Shenandoah Valley performance—“we were getting held up in traffic behind horses and buggies” —with a Kappa Alpha fraternity party the band played at Wake Forest University.
“I kid you not, there was a fraternity brother who was booty dancing to our fiddle music,” he says.
Though they played an Episcopal church service in Asheville the next morning, perhaps Chatham Rabbits can shake that wholesome stereotype after all.