Musical duo Chatham Rabbits create their own silver linings.Words by Laura Drummond
If 2020 had gone as planned, Chatham Rabbits, an American roots music duo from Chatham County, North Carolina, would be winding down their busiest tour schedule to date in promotion of their recently released sophomore album, The Yoke is Easy, the Burden is Full.
As we all know, this year didn’t go as planned. It has been particularly challenging for musicians, whose livelihood depends on touring, to make ends meet when venues are closed and festivals are cancelled. Chatham Rabbits has faced this time of uncertainty with incredible ingenuity, focusing on gratitude and creating their own silver linings along the way.
Chatham Rabbits is a young endeavor for the husband-and-wife duo Austin and Sarah McCombie. A little more than two years ago, Austin was working as a financial planner, Sarah was a Montessori teacher, and music was their hobby for nights and weekends. As their original tunes nodding to old-time and bluegrass traditions grew them an ardent fanbase, they decided to take the leap and make music their full-time jobs. “The first year and a half were spectacular,” Sarah McCombie said. In early March of this year, they purchased a tour van in Nevada—their most expensive investment as a duo thus far—in preparation to incorporate a backing band into their live shows. “We had extremely big goals for ourselves and a really grand vision,” McCombie said. They were driving across the United States, bound for the Charleston Bluegrass Festival, when their phones began to ring, reporting one cancellation after another. “It felt like the rug was ripped out from underneath us,” McCombie said. “Everything was going so well, and then it came to a screeching halt.”
Disbelief and frustration turned to gratitude for their own health and safety when Austin and Sarah returned home and learned of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our problems seemed very small,” McCombie said. With a fresh perspective, Chatham Rabbits started brainstorming about what to do next.
They proceeded with the May 1 debut of their album, The Yoke is Easy, the Burden is Full, even if they couldn’t do a traditional promotional tour, opting for livestream concerts instead. “There wasn’t going to be a perfect time in 2020, but we’re really glad we decided to release it,” McCombie said. “We are so proud of this album.” Many of the record’s themes, particularly relationships and their push-and-pull of connection and conflict, seem particularly relevant to this time. The New York Times best-selling author Wiley Cash described the album, now available to stream or purchase, as “carried by gorgeous melodies, harmonies, and delicate instrumentation.”
Figuring out how to keep in touch with fans in this new landscape became a top priority. “We want our fans to know they are the reason we are able to make music for a living. They keep showing up for us and we’re trying to reciprocate that,” McCombie said. Chatham Rabbits increased their involvement with their Patreon members, even calling individual fans to see how they were doing.
This was a start, but they were really missing the opportunity to play live music in person. Austin had an idea, “What if we can take the concert to people?” He attached solar panels to the roof of the van to power their sound system, hooked up a utility trailer as their makeshift stage, and affixed socially distanced tip jars to the back. After doing a test-run with family and friends, they realized they were on to something. “People were able to listen and enjoy the concert from the safety of their yards,” Sarah McCombie said. Thus, the Stay at Home Tour was born.
Chatham Rabbits put a submission form on their website, thinking they would recruit fans to request about 10 concerts in their neighborhoods. They ended up receiving 400 submissions in the first week alone. Coordinating with neighborhoods, they play short sets at multiple stops, while people set out chairs on the sidewalk or dance in their yards. By the time each show is over, Chatham Rabbits have brightened spirits and hopefully gained new fans. “We have done almost 100 at this point, and we’ll continue until it gets too cold or dark too early,” McCombie said. “We’ll pick them back up in the spring and keep doing this until venues are open again.” While they have kept the Stay at Home Tour primarily in North Carolina, they plan to expand to other states in the South.
The Stay at Home Tour has sustained Chatham Rabbits during this challenging time. “We are really fortunate and grateful,” McCombie said. Despite the hardships they have faced this year, Chatham Rabbits remain hopeful. “Austin and I are both hopeful that venues can open safely and that the small venues we love can survive this economic crisis,” McCombie said. “We are really hopeful for our fans’ health and that people will stay safe and take care of themselves, so we can get out of this and enjoy music festivals and things like that next year.”
For updates on Chatham Rabbits and their Stay at Home Tour, visit www.chathamrabbits.com.