The last time we caught up with Chatham Rabbits, Sarah and Austin McCombie were fresh on the heels of a long, strange trip home after a string of pandemic-related concert cancellations derailed their touring plans. But since then, the husband-and-wife duo hasn’t stepped off the gas. In the thick of venue closures, they hitched a trailer to their van and played outdoor shows in nearly two hundred neighborhoods. They hosted six sold-out shows at a makeshift venue on their North Carolina farm. And between gigs, they offered fans a glimpse at their rural lifestyle with regular video updates, chatting with the cows and chickens in between writing songs and frying up fresh eggs.
This Friday, June 3, Chatham Rabbits will release If You See Me Riding By, which Garden & Gun is proud to premiere below. They recorded the ten-song album partially at a lake house in Virginia and partially at Betty’s, a studio outside of Chapel Hill owned by the fellow North Carolina band Sylvan Esso. Songs like “Who Will Save the Trees” and “11 Acres” draw on the couple’s close ties to nature, with the McCombies’ gentle drawls and sweet harmonies finding a perfect backdrop in the country and bluegrass-inspired strings that accompany them. Anyone who’s seen the warm duo onstage will find a familiarity in songs like “Foot of My Bed” or “You Never Told Me I Was Pretty,” which capture the energy and the empathy that make this rising band special.
Another treat for fans: In May, PBS premiered On the Road with Chatham Rabbits, a four-part series that followed the duo through several shows and their day-to-day lives.
G&G caught up with the McCombies to talk about their favorite new songs, the peace (and occasional chaos) of life on the farm, and the fan connections they’ve made along their journey. Stream the album and read the interview below. If You See Me Riding By is available to order here.
Do you have a favorite song or moment on the album? What was especially fun to write?
Sarah: I think Austin and I are going to have different answers, but I am very proud of the song “Abigail.” It’s the only song I’ve ever written that felt like it just kind of spilled out. I wrote it about the Kentucky Pack Horse Library, which was a program that the federal government started in the 1930s where women in rural Appalachia were paid to ride their horses into the mountains of Kentucky and carry library books to kids that were in really rural, hard-to-reach areas without great school systems. I just kind of grabbed onto the concept and let it flow. And it was a really fun song to write. It just felt… I hate that I’m about to say this, but it felt effortless.
Austin: For me, the song that really sticks out is “You Never Told Me I Was Pretty.” During the pandemic, when everything was canceled, we had a fan of ours in Charlotte reach out and say, “I really want to help you guys. Can I pay you to write a song as a birthday present for my husband, Sam?” So we interviewed her and asked her to tell us about why she loves him and to give us some inspiration. What really stood out was that her favorite thing about Sam is that he never tells their granddaughter, Eleanor, that she’s pretty. Instead, he focuses on who she is as a person and her capabilities. He always says she can do anything she sets her mind to. In the world we live in today, with Instagram and all kinds of stuff, it’s just really special from a grandfather to a granddaughter instilling—and Sarah always says this, too—that the way you look is the least important thing about you.
That kind of fan interaction isn’t out of the norm for you. You’ve stayed with fans on tour, hosted concerts at your home, and really made listeners feel like part of the family. Do you consciously approach that fan-artist relationship differently?
Austin: I’m curious what Sarah’s going to say, because my perception from the outside looking in is that she almost can’t help herself. She’s just so genuine. Sarah’s incredible at remembering everybody’s names and their kids and their birthdays. She loves to bring people in.
Sarah: I have friendship FOMO!
Austin: She wants to be everybody’s best friend. It’s just who she is. But I think for me, early on in our career, I was having a lot of issues just with the “artist’s persona.” Like, I’m nervous! I got really nervous when I even thought about walking on stage. How do I become an “artist?” I started practicing the idea that if I could always just be the same version of myself onstage and in front of my fans that I am around my friends, then I’d have nothing to worry about. It really made all the stage fright and fear go away. Ultimately, I think that’s what created that vibe that we’ve tried to fulfill ever since. We’re not mysterious artists. [Laughs]
Sarah: Early on, I think we were worried about being cool and having a persona, but that just is not us. It just started happening organically that we connected with people. We’d stay in their houses when we traveled or… I mean, just recently on Instagram, a woman who came to our concert in New York City messaged us and was like, “I’m coming to North Carolina on a work trip. Is there any chance that you would be around? Could I meet you guys?” And I was like, “Yeah, here’s our address.” [Laughs] She came over and had coffee and we got to introduce her to the animals. It’s a little thing for us to spend twenty minutes introducing a fan to our horses and sharing the T-shirt we’re working on, but it can be a huge deal to them. I know how I would feel if an artist I love did that for me. Not that we’re on the same level, but if Brandi Carlile did that, I would just freak out.
The last time we spoke, the future of your in-person shows was uncertain. But you found a way to bring your music to fans even when things were really shut down. Tell me about that.
Austin: Sarah and I had just bought a new tour van on March 3, 2020. It felt like buying a beach house in 2007—a really scary financial decision, but we had no idea what was to come. When everything shut down, we put our heads together and thought, There’s always an opportunity that comes out of situations like this. Look where it seems impossible, and continue playing. So we bought a flatbed trailer and hooked it up to the new tour van. I put solar panels on top to power a battery system that would run our sound equipment. And we became like a musical food truck. [Laughs] It was super fun.
You also hosted outdoor shows at home on the farm. How do you think running a farm has impacted your career as musicians?
Sarah: You know, running a farm and running our own business and being our own managers and playing our own music… It is like a gigantic, long marathon of Whack-a-Mole. There’s constantly stuff coming up that you never would’ve thought could happen. That is as true with farm life and animals and electric fences and water and hay bales as it is with the music and broken strings and tour vans and personalities with bandmates and everything.
Austin: Yes. But on the other hand, having our animals and having this farm to come home to is one of the only reasons why I think we can spend so much time on the road and just grind it out. Because when we come here, it’s a sanctuary.