From pioneering Hollow Rock String Band of the 1960s through the Fuzzy Mountain String Band and Red Clay Ramblers of the 1970s, the Triangle has spawned an impressive roster of old-time musicians and bands.
Newly formed Chatham Rabbits join such seasoned groups as Mandolin Orange and Mipso as the latest to trace their lineage to the bands of yore. Chatham Rabbits are the husband-and-wife team of Austin and Sarah McCombie.
Married in 2015, Sarah, 25, and Austin, 26, quit their day jobs last year and launched Chatham Rabbits as a full-time venture. The Bynum-based duo will celebrate their debut CD, “All I Want From You,” Jan. 11 at Cat’s Cradle. (Note: The concert previously was scheduled in the Cat’s Cradle Back Room but was moved to the bigger space.)
Produced and recorded by Chapel Hill’s Jerry Brown in his Rubber Room studio, the CD features nine of 10 original songs drawing upon the experiences of each writer.
Their songs purvey a mature ensemble of Southern themes, including Reunion (“Come Home”), Salvation (“Holy Dirt”), Escape (“Chattanooga”), and loss (“The Fire”). With clawhammer banjo, fiddle and guitar, they recall North Carolina legends Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman, who graced the radio waves with their old-time songs in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Looking ahead to their Cat’s Cradle gig, the Chatham Rabbits spoke with the N&O about their musical backgrounds, their album and their vision for a successful music career.
Q: When did you decide to launch the Rabbits as a full-time enterprise?
Sarah McCombie: I was the music teacher at a Montessori School in Durham. Austin was a financial planner. Because Austin was essentially self-employed, he was able to stop working about mid-May. I was finished the end of June.
Austin McCombie: The day after Sarah finished her job, we started right away.
Q: Sarah, before you met Austin, you were banjoist and singer with the South Carolina Broadcasters. How did you become interested in old-time music, which is not the typical music of your generation?
Sarah: I started getting interested in old-time music my freshmen year at Peace College. I met people from Charleston, where Ivy Sheppard, [the Broadcasters’ fiddler] was on faculty. I started going to fiddlers conventions and old-time jams and fell in love with the music, the community and the history. I went to one of the Broadcasters shows. They heard me sing and invited me to do a few shows with them. They said the liked my voice but said I would need to learn to play banjo.
Q: Austin, you played rock music before turning to old-time. How did that transition happen for you?
Austin: My sophomore year (at NC State) I was at a Mandolin Orange concert and the Broadcasters opened. I saw Sarah come on stage with her banjo and I was like, “Wow! This girl’s really cool.” I was drawn to the entire show, and Sarah, specifically. I think that was the first time I was exposed to old-time music.
The next year, Sarah and I went on our first date. Once we started dating and being serious with each other, I figured, “If I’m going to keep this girl, I’d better learn to play old-time music.” I would say meeting Sarah was the reason I got into old-time.
Q: Your CD, “All I Want from You,” is original music, yet resonates with music recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s. What music do you listen to for inspiration for your own songs?
Sarah: The Carter Family music is a reflection of the South of the Appalachian Mountains where they lived. I love songs like “Pretty Raindrops” and “East Carolina Blues.” Songs like that are huge influences on me. I’ve gotten influence from Southern Gospel songs we sang in church. Some were African-American spirituals, some were old hymns. Those play a big part in how I lean musically.
Austin: My connection is from a different perspective, because I was trying to learn an instrument at first. I was trying to learn the fiddle. So I was listening to [Mount Airy legend] Tommy Jarrell. Within the first two weeks of meeting Sarah, I went to the Galax (Va.) Fiddlers Convention and was exposed to the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers. I think that music inspired my drive to learn old-time music. And it made me look at my own family history a lot more.
Q: Sarah is from Alamance County but Austin, you grew up in Wilmington. Old-time music is more akin to the Piedmont than it is to Coastal Plain. Does anything in your family background connect you to old-time tunes
Austin: I always had a draw to the mountains because I had family there. My uncle lived on 1,200 acres north of Roanoke. There was a farmhouse built in 1825 that he was still inhabiting. Last year it burned to the ground, so I wrote “The Fire” about that. I probably wouldn’t have written that song if I hadn’t been inspired by old-time music.
Q: You’ve quit your day jobs and have set course on an exciting, if uncertain, future as professional musicians. What steps are you taking to even the odds of success in the favor of Chatham Rabbits?
Austin: As a business owner before this, my mentality going in was, if we’re going to give this a shot, we have to treat it like a business. We’re romantic partners, we’re music partners and we’re business partners. No one of those can be more important than the others.
We assumed I would be the one using the phones, booking the shows, running the business side because I’d been a successful businessman. We assumed Sarah would be writing more of the songs, doing more of the artistry. And it turned out to be the exact opposite.
Sarah: I think he is writing really great stuff, and I love getting shows booked and talking on the phone. I love being productive like that. I’m totally happy that the roles have been split up the way they are.
Austin: We have this record now – it’s a collection of tunes we’ve written over our college careers and figuring this thing out and starting full-time. Now, we’re stepping into what it means to be the Chatham Rabbits.
Who: Chatham Rabbits album release concert
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 11
Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Cost: $12 in advance, $15 day-of show
In NC: They will be in Charlotte Jan. 24 at The Evening Muse.