Good Hare Day
Chatham County Rabbits Revisited
Most folks go rabbit hunting with a rifle. Sarah McCombie’s weapon of choice is a banjo. But bludgeoning the furry little buggers with her axe or feeding them a lethal lead and copper sandwich with a firestick is not on her agenda.
With husband Austin, the duo pay musical tribute to their adopted hometown’s former favorite pastime and means of support. The mill village of Bynum in Northern Chatham County was once the rabbit capital of the United States. “Tons of people were coming here to hunt, and there were lots of rabbits being shipped out of Chatham County, even to Europe,” the singer/banjoist says. To keep their millworkers’ spirits up, the cotton mill sponsored a string band, the Chatham Rabbits.
The original group was quite an ensemble. “We had two good fiddle players and a banjo player and a harp and a mandolin and two guitars,” original member Frank Durham bragged in a 1970 interview with UNC’s Southern Oral History Program. With the blessings of their neighbors, the McCombies adopted the name, preserving the sound, but not the size. “It wasn’t so much of a decision as just like naturally how we ended up,” McCombie says. “We’ve always played music as a duo. We really enjoy it that way, and we’ve been really successful so far just as a two-person band.”
Sarah’s intro into string-band show business sounds like Lifetime movie material. A rabid fan of David and Ivy Sheppard’s outfit, The South Carolina Broadcasters, she joined them onstage at a show in 2012 at Prissy Polly’s BBQ in Kernersville. McCombie’s sing-along warbling from the audience so impressed the Sheppards that they called her later that night, said they were looking for a banjo player and a singer and invited her to come on a radio show with them.
Under the Broadcasters’ tutelage, she perfected her banjo skills and became a band member for three years, before and finishing college and marrying Austin. They ended up in Bynum living in the house formerly owned by Randolph Riddle, the guitarist for the original Chatham Rabbits string band. The duo has since taken up music full time, selling the house and living the road dawg life in an ’86 mini Winnebago. They funded their debut release, All I Want From You, with some unique pledge inducements on Kickstarter, like baking pies for a $50 donation. “I made close to 50 pies for people this summer,” McCombie says. With a few more to make, she adds, “If we ever do that again, I don’t think I’m gonna put that on there.”
She wants people to remember this iteration of the Chatham Rabbits for their Carter Family–style vocal harmonies as well as their songwriting. “I really hope people view Chatham Rabbits and listen to our music long after we’re gone because we really do feel like it’s timeless, like a lot of old-time and bluegrass music is. Ours just happens to be a little more of the 2018 and 2019 version of that.” — Grant Britt OH
Catch the Chatham Rabbits’ album release on February 3 at the Carolina Theatre. Info: chathamrabbits.com.