Chatham Rabbits tap into North Carolina history
There are different ways of honoring tradition. The husband-and-wife string-band duo Chatham Rabbits play music that’s rooted in the old-time traditions of artists like the Carter Family, Charlie Poole, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The couple, Sarah Osborne McCombie and Austin McCombie, are not preservationists though. They’re not engaged in a meticulous recreation of the repertoire and technique of styles from the 1920s and 1930s. Chatham Rabbits write and perform original music, material written in the 21st Century, but you’d be forgiven for wondering if some of their songs were from before World War II. The duo has just released their debut record, All I Want From You, and are crisscrossing the state doing a number of album-release shows.
They play the Crown at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro on Sunday, Feb. 3. Earlier this week I spoke by phone with Sarah, who plays banjo and shares vocal duties. Austin, who sings and plays guitar, was busy navigating the mountain roads as the couple made their way back East after playing a show in Asheville.
Old-time music, string band music, the dance music, fiddle tunes, ballads, story songs, tales of displacement, betrayal, hardship, and murder, the folk hymns, the songs of the mountains, those distinctive vocal harmonies, a whiff of shape-note singing, strains of the blues, songs of the farms and songs of the mills that went on to become bluegrass and early country — there’s a fair amount of deep tradition in North Carolina. And if one can sometimes feel like this music has thoroughly vanished from our world, one can also get the impression that it’s right here around us, still lingering in the air, with stories and characters and history to pull from just about everywhere we go. Okeh Records made one of its first scouting recordings of string band music in Winston-Salem in 1927, the same year of the landmark recordings in Bristol, Virginia, that some describe as the “Big Bang of country music.” Meanwhile, there were artists like the Blue Sky Boys and the Dixon Brothers who were from or spent time recording around the Piedmont region. The tradition is rooted here.
The Chatham Rabbits channel and touch that history in their own way. The duo’s name pays tribute to a musical and cultural legacy of the town where they settled down after college. With jobs in the Triangle area, the two were drawn to Bynum, in Chatham County, in part because of the acoustic music scene that flourished there. They bought an old house and learned more about the community. (Sarah had grown up in Alamance County and then went on to play in the regional old-time band the South Carolina Broadcasters during her college years.)
They learned about how string-band music had thrived among the mill workers in the region back in the first half of the 20th Century. (Sarah’s grandmother was active in the Guilford County Historical Society, and Sarah’s own work as a school teacher touched on North Carolina music history, so this type of research and curiosity was part of how they related to where they lived.) They also learned that Chatham County had been known for producing rabbits for meat, both farm-raised and hunted wild rabbits. In fact, in the 1930s, there was a popular string band made of a rotating cast of players from the area, and that band had been known as the Chatham Rabbits. They played local concerts and appeared on regional radio shows. As it happened, one of the guitarists from the band lived in the house that the McCombies ended up buying.
You can think of it as something coming full circle, or of Sarah and Austin as picking up where some others left off. The songs of the contemporary Chatham Rabbits point back to old stories, to the Civil War, to working the land, to faith, to the sense of home that’s bound up in the landscape.
Chatham Rabbits went into the studio in late 2017 thinking they’d be recording some traditional old-time tunes, but in the process of working with producer Jerry Brown and with members of Mandolin Orange and Mipso, the two focused on their own original songs.
“Although we write, so many of our songs are about a different time and place,” Sarah said. “We don’t really write a lot of songs about ourselves. Austin and I are both really interested in conjuring up characters.”
One song, “Bugle Boy,” is a layered bit of storytelling, with the lyrics sung from the perspective of the wife of a soldier who’d had his good friend die in battle, and who had picked up the bugle to honor his fallen comrade. It’s about an act of tribute, but also about wartime suffering, and coping after the fighting is done.
Sarah’s and Austin’s voices blend sweetly together, in that kind of harmonic closeness that almost seems to be a function or expression of emotional ties that singers have together. The string playing can bring to mind the Carter Family, with their signature style of both plucking melodic lines and strumming chords on the offbeat, a style of steadily syncopated playing related to the clawhammer technique that Sarah uses on the banjo. And yet a few of the songs — both in the chord progressions and the phrasing — might make you think of Gillian Welch, another artist who straddles both old and new.
The Chatham Rabbits have just released their first record, but the pair are already at work on songs for their second album, and they’re planning to spend most of this year on the road touring. Having set aside their non-musical careers (she was teaching music in a Montessori School, he was a financial consultant), they were prepared to have to sell that old house and to live more or less out of their vehicle, as traveling troubadours. But they’re now hoping that they can stay semi-rooted in Bynum while still bringing the music to listening rooms, theaters, churches and festivals around the country.
You might view making string-band music that flourished in the 1930s as a recklessly anachronistic activity, but one can see the current interest in handmade old-time songs as partly a corrective to the mass-produced and computer-generated culture of the moment. It’s also analogous to the continuing resurgence in all things artisanal and local. If people like to feel a connection to their local brewery, bakery, and farmers market, this music is the sonic equivalent. It’s made by people you know, and the sound reflects the place in its own distinct way.
The McCombies suspect that the music’s appeal is the same for players as it is for listeners: a driving energy and rawness that feels real. It pulls people together.
“I feel like it’s very addictive and very primal, it sounds kind of weird, but that’s the best word that comes to mind,” Sarah said. “This music is very immediate, and it helps to build relationships.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Chatham Rabbits at The Crown at the Carolina Theatre, 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro, on Sunday, Feb. 3, at 4 p.m. carolinatheatre.com