The musical duo released “If You See Me Riding By” on June 3 after the debut of their new four-episode series, “On The Road with Chatham Rabbits”
Words and photo by Anna-Rhesa Versola
Sarah Osborne McCombie and Austin McCombie comprise the Chatham Rabbits, and they seem to be everywhere all at once – online, in stores, on television and onstage in multiple cities nationwide as they release their third album, “If You See Me Riding By.”
And in May, they celebrated the premiere of “On The Road with Chatham Rabbits,” a series of four episodes that follow their life on and off stage, broadcast locally on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The hope is that other affiliate stations across the country will pick up the show.
Three years ago, Sarah and Austin moved from their quarter-acre home amid an arts-inspired community in Bynum to an 11-acre farm in blue-collar Siler City. Here, the couple spent the COVID-19 lockdown writing songs in relative isolation.
“The thing that comes to mind,” Sarah reflects, “is all the stuff that the pandemic forced us to think about, or talk about, or do that we would not have otherwise done. For instance, there’s a song on there Austin wrote that is about having to think about what part of who you are is because of your upbringing.”
Austin says he drew inspiration from his surroundings. “Just the light, living on the land, being around our horses, having more space for ourselves to think and reflect,” he says. “And out here, I mean, you can walk around naked and you can do whatever you want – that kind of freedom and space, creatively, is huge.”
Sarah, an admitted extrovert, laughs at her introvert husband’s comment. Their tour calendar this year packs nearly 50 performances in 14 states from Vermont to Colorado. Playing in new spaces introduces their music to fresh fans that Sarah and Austin like to call “carrot heads.” And from the stage, Sarah likes to share a bit of context for each song, giving the audience some insight to what inspired the music and lyrics in the pieces that make up an album. Austin says it’s easier to know when an album is done versus a song.
“I think it’s pretty simple,” Austin says, pulling his ankle over his knee. “Once you have between nine or 11 songs, we have an album here. With a song, it’s a lot more complicated because you’re trying to communicate something that’s beyond just words. … I don’t know how to explain it, but when you’re done, I get kind of emotional, like I can almost kind of start crying. I feel like it’s really hit me for the first time. And until that happens, the song is definitely not done. But when that happens, I’m like, ‘If I felt this way, I feel like someone else will feel this way.’ And this is important enough to put out in the world, you know? Like that, yeah, feel some emotion.”
This latest album focuses on the couple’s love of their life on the farm. For a future project, Sarah says she and Austin want to expand their musical reach by collaborating with artists like Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Tré Burt and Tray Wellington.
On a whim in 2018, Sarah emailed Heather Burgiss, producer and host of “My Home, NC,” a series about the people, culture, music and food in North Carolina, and detailed how she and Austin left their corporate jobs to pursue music as a career. As a result, a 10-minute segment aired that year as part of an episode in the series. “We just kept up with Heather through the years,” Sarah says.
In 2021, the musical duo was performing at a PBS-sponsored event at the North Carolina Museum of Art when a television crew member asked if they ever considered being on TV. Naturally, Sarah pursued the idea.
She was thrilled to have a film crew shadow them but Austin felt differently. “I’m exhausted after we play a show, but this was a whole other level of exhaustion,” Austin explains. “Normally, after [a] show’s over, I can retreat and pack up gear and do my own thing and that was all part of what they wanted to capture. I mean you’re never ‘off’ until you’re home and they literally have left. … Luckily, they didn’t put any [cameras] in our house. The only ones that were mounted were in the tour van.”
Sarah is animated when she remembers the multiple days of having a film crew follow their movements throughout the day. “It was a really, really great experience,” she says with a wide grin. “I know it was easier for me because I am an extrovert and I was more filled up after the show by getting to be ‘on’ more, but that creates tension in marriage when I’m like ‘wow’ and Austin’s like up and down.”
Austin says he did become more comfortable over time and “probably the show would get even better, because you really could be yourself. But, this is our first go-round. There’s only so much of ourselves we could be with cameras in your face.”
Sarah was energized by working with a television production crew that included women like Miriam McSpadden, director of photography, she says, because females in leadership and creative teams are uncommon in the bluegrass music industry. “It was just special,” Sarah says. “And they made me feel comfortable, too. So that’s great.”
Austin says the next step is to play more concerts out west to expand their market. “I think combined with a TV show, we’re just hoping that our net gets cast wider and wider,” he says. “The hardest part about being a musician for a living is just getting people all over the place to know about you. The only way to effectively really do that is to put boots on the ground and actually just pay your dues in every single little city.”