For Sarah and Austin McCombie, known to fans as the husband-and-wife Americana duo Chatham Rabbits, a chance to tour the country took a strange turn indeed. In early March, the pair touched down in Nevada, thousands of miles away from their North Carolina home, to pick up a new van and embark on a weeks-long drive back ahead of the release of their sophomore album. “We’d been looking for a tour bus for a while, and I found this amazing deal on a Sprinter in California, so we arranged to fly out and meet the owners in Las Vegas,” explains Austin. “We were just going to make a whole trip out of it for a month—go across the country and see parts of it we had never seen. We’d never been west of Tennessee before.” The duo had shows scheduled along the way and planned to cap off the journey with an appearance at the inaugural Charleston Bluegrass Festival in South Carolina. That all changed as the country began shutting down to battle the spread of the coronavirus. “Every single show and radio spot, anything related to our music that we had lined up, it all just went completely out the window,” Sarah says. “We had to start from scratch—which has kind of become a metaphor for our life right now.”
The McCombies’ story is that of many independent, up-and-coming musicians as they try to find their footing in a world suddenly devoid of concerts, festivals, and face-to-face interaction. But like all of us, they’re pushing through. Their new album, The Yoke Is Easy, the Burden Is Full, is set for release next month, and while they won’t be playing any shows for the moment, they’re finding new ways to connect with fans. “People need music,” Sarah says. “They need things to look forward to right now. And we need to keep our spirits up, too.”
Hear an exclusive first listen below of the track “Oxen,” which Austin wrote for his sister’s wedding and includes the lyric that became the album’s title. “It’s our riff on the Bible verse ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light,’” Sarah says. “We kind of spun it on its head.”
Adds Austin: “It’s a song about marriage, but it’s much bigger than that. It’s about how important community is—about the fact that relationships are extremely difficult, but so worth it.”
We also caught up with the McCombies to talk about their journey home and their North Carolina roots. Read the interview below. The Yoke is set for release on May 1 and is available for pre-order here.
Tell us about your cross-country drive home as the country progressively shut down public life. How did you make it back by van?
Austin: When we started on this trip, we were basically disconnected from reality for the first week. We left from Las Vegas and went to the Grand Canyon, and on a fly fishing trip in Lee’s Ferry near Horseshoe Bend. A week later, we had just played at Los Poblanos, in Albuquerque, and we woke up in Santa Fe in a parking lot in our new tour bus to ping after ping on our phones of cancellations. MerleFest was one of the big ones, and a lot of other big festivals that we had on the docket leading up to our big May 1 album release show. So I’ll be honest with you, we were like, okay, we’re gonna have a few beers, and we’re gonna be sad—for an hour. Then we got up and we just got to work. We started rescheduling everything and making a plan.
What was it like on your way back as businesses began to close and more health precautions became necessary?
Austin: We were fortunate because we were riding in our hotel room, so that was a huge relief for us. As far as getting food and things, we kind of did what everyone else was doing—scurry into the grocery store as quickly as possible, wash our hands going in and wash them going out. We did realize that there was a toilet paper crisis. My parents were calling us and saying, “You need to get toilet paper while you’re out there in the middle of nowhere, before you get back.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, are you serious?”
Sarah: Every night we stayed in our van in a Cracker Barrel parking lot—Cracker Barrels all across the country let you park there for free.
Austin: They encourage it, really. Because they know you’re going to eat breakfast there in the morning.
Sarah: Which we do. It’s our home away from home. We also tried to support the local small businesses that we’ve come to know on our travels. We love Frothy Monkey, the coffee shop in Nashville, so we got takeout from them and tried to do things like that for our regular staples at places across the country. Buxton Hall [in Asheville, North Carolina] is Austin’s and my favorite restaurant of all time, so we got takeout from them. We were just treading water, trying to figure it out.
It sounds like your fans really went out of their way to show you support when the shows started getting canceled. How did you continue to connect with them?
Sarah: We had been using Patreon, the artist crowdsourcing platform, since last April, and we already had some fans who supported us on a monthly basis. When we put out a call to our Instagram followers and our mailing list, that number doubled within a week. We also had folks who realized they wouldn’t be able to see us and emailed us wanting to pay us what they would have paid in a ticket price.
Austin: It’s encouraging. The biggest takeaways we got from this were that, first, it can all go away really fast, and that is scary. But we also saw that people are genuinely really generous. We’ve been blown away. One fan of ours, her husband’s birthday is coming up, so she offered to hire us to write him a birthday song! I thought, Wow, our fans are more creative than we are. It was incredible.
You both grew up in North Carolina. Tell us about where you’re from and how that shaped you, as musicians and people.
Sarah: I grew up in Alamance County, North Carolina—essentially in the Piedmont, very close to where we live now, very similar to how we’re living now. I was the one who brought Austin to the dark side. [Laughs]
Austin: I had to sell my surfboard! I’m originally from Wilmington, North Carolina, in very much a beach town. It gave me an appreciation for landscape. I was never a kid who was playing video games. I was always outside. I was always fishing. Although our landscape is so different now—we both went to school in Raleigh, and then moved to Chatham County and live on an eleven-acre farm here now—we love where we live, the rolling hills. We have all these animals around us: cows, guineas, llamas, chickens, a dog, a cat. In my off time I’m fishing or hunting or just sitting in the woods. I think that has affected our music tremendously.
Sarah: I do not take it for granted at all. We came back home from the tour and our chickens had laid like sixty eggs. So recently, we’ve just been eating eggs: deviled eggs, fried eggs. We’re enjoying the perks.