A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2023. Sarah McCombie might as well be on her front porch, casually chatting with a gaggle of her closest friends. Only this

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2023. Sarah McCombie might as well be on her front porch, casually chatting with a gaggle of her closest friends. Only this

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2023.

Sarah McCombie might as well be on her front porch, casually chatting with a gaggle of her closest friends. Only this front porch is the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh — and there are about a thousand friends hanging onto her every wry word. At first glance, she seems too slight to command the sold-out crowd, standing center stage in a simple, old-fashioned dress, peering through spectacles, placidly tuning her banjo as she speaks. And yet the audience leans in to listen closely to the 29-year-old singer with chestnut tresses, fast eyes, and a quick smile. They adore the stories that she croons along to the picking of her guitar-playing husband, Austin.

That’s Sarah playing banjo, with Austin to her right, on guitar. photograph by Alex Boerner

The McCombies, you see, are known to an ever-broadening musical fan base as the Americana band Chatham Rabbits. Their stage banter and song lyrics — topics ranging from encounters in a Piggly Wiggly to reflections on the Civil War — are as rich and intimate as a family conversation: the homey details, the affectionate inside jokes, the shared legends and lore. On stage, Sarah introduces an ode to a great-aunt whose preferred pastime was collecting dead squirrels for stew. “Even if people think what you’re doing is crazy,” Sarah tells her fans, “do what speaks to you. Do what you love!”

What these two Rabbits love is the country life — or at least the version of it that celebrates community, hard work, and a faith that while old ways weren’t always the best ways, there’s still wisdom and joy to be found in many a tradition. Their passion ripples through the twanging music they’ve shared across three albums and a fourth in the works. But their inspiration and commitment extend far beyond mere stage personas.

To get home after the show, the McCombies steer their secondhand van well past the city lights of Raleigh to a tiny community in southern Guilford County. Then, they drive down a gravel lane to their 64-acre farm. Sarah’s known this hilly spread for years. Her family has been rooted in this part of North Carolina since the mid-1700s, and in spring of last year, her father bequeathed to her and Austin the family homestead, starting a verse in the ballad of the Chatham Rabbits.

• • •

Across the dirt drive from the old, two-story farmhouse, Sarah and Austin welcome guests into their cozy-bordering-on-cramped garage apartment. This is where the couple are living temporarily while the house, currently hoisted on jacks, awaits much-needed foundational work. Sarah pours peach tea. Austin serves turkey, pickle, and mayonnaise sandwiches. Framed by the kitchen window are Sercy and her calf, Nugget, lounging in the long, wet grass of a meadow, serenely eyeing the McCombies’ gamboling horses.

Down the hill, where the fields give way to woods, is a spot where two burbling brooks meet. Austin likes to retreat there to hash out songs. “I haven’t had much time to do that lately, though,” he says, alluding to the couple’s juggling of career and domestic duties.

The McCombies have been making music since 2014. They met when Austin, then a senior at North Carolina State University who’d played in an electronic-pop band, saw Sarah, a student at Peace College, performing with a more traditional group. Smitten, he pressed for a date, which led to more, which led to the twosome conjuring up their first song together and realizing that they just might’ve found their destiny. Married two years later, the McCombies settled in a row house in Bynum, on the rough and muddy banks of the Haw River in northeastern Chatham County.

They loved the rhythm of small-town life and the creative community that has long thrived amid the gatherings at the Bynum General Store. By then, the couple had begun performing together, and they needed a name. So they hopped online to ask for suggestions. “We couldn’t figure out why so many people were giving us some version of ‘rabbits,’” Sarah says with a laugh. Their investigation led first to a bygone musical act, The Chatham Rabbits string band. Decades earlier, that group had been the sponsored house band for a cotton mill that once employed most of Bynum’s working population. The McCombies then discovered that the earlier group’s guitar picker had lived in their house. “We were told that he loved to play music,” Sarah says, “and that he loved to have a good time.”

Keen to celebrate the heritage of that band’s name — it was based on the proliferation of rabbits in Chatham County beginning in the late 1800s — Sarah and Austin resurrected it for themselves in 2017. As the new Chatham Rabbits, the McCombies soon surpassed whatever fame the earlier string band had achieved. The couple’s ballads and gently rollicking examinations of life’s little secrets and big mysteries attracted ears. Equally enchanting was their sweet and salty onstage chemistry — kind of like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, recast for the Grand Ole Opry.

On the kitchen wall of the McCombies’ temporary garage apartment — where Austin prepares sandwiches and Sarah scribbles out the duo’s concert set lists — is a painting of their previous house in Chatham County. photograph by Alex Boerner

In late 2019, the McCombies decamped from Bynum for an 11-acre farm not far away. There, they continued writing and performing their music and swelled the ranks of their growing family of critters: an imperious turkey called Cornbread; Sercy and Nugget, the aforementioned mama cow and calf; and their horses, Waylon, Wilder, and Wojo. All of whom became reality TV stars in 2022, when PBS North Carolina produced On the Road with the Chatham Rabbits, a five-part series on the duo and their bouncing bucolic exploits.

The series added more giddyup to the duo’s career, and they soon signed with the booking agent who also represents acoustic-guitar sensation Billy Strings. While grateful for the new opportunity, the McCombies are also a little anxious about balancing their pastoral life with the pressures of working in an industry — popular music — that involves posting every intimate detail of an artist’s life to social media. “We built this from the ground up, and now we have to share everything. And that’s … vulnerable,” Sarah says. “We have to give up control. And if there’s one thing I love,” she adds, playfully clenching her fist, “it’s some white-knuckle control!”

• • •

As Sarah splatters through the red-clay mud toward her centuries-old farmhouse, she grins through the drizzle, and cracks, “It’s got all the modern conveniences.” Inside, the place creaks as she guides her visitors through a debris-cluttered living room. “It should be safe,” she assures, “as long as no one tries any jumping jacks.”

The house is actually two structures. Back in the mid-1800s, Sarah’s ancestors added a larger home onto the farm’s original double-decker log cabin which dates back, she says, to 1753. Essentially, they wrapped the cabin in a new set of walls, which eventually became good ol’ aluminum siding. Upon taking over the farm, the McCombies stripped away the siding, and the denuding revealed the original cabin in all its ragged glory — plus something else.

“We found that right in between the two houses, they left a gap, a secret place that you could get to only through an unmarked door,” Sarah says, pulling open a handleless panel to reveal the hidden room. “We don’t know for sure yet,” she continues in the dramatic groove of a born storyteller, “but when you consider that my family were Quakers — pacifists and against slavery — this room could have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.”

A secret room in the McCombies’ home may have been a hideaway for enslaved people seeking freedom. In the 1840s, the original log cabin, built in 1753, was encased in a new exterior (top right). photograph by Alex Boerner

While Sarah recounts her efforts to investigate the theory, Austin waves everybody up to the rickety second floor. There, he studies the mud chink crumbling off the walls and the floorboards pillowed in dust. “Look at the wood in this room,” he says. “Imagine the size of the trees that, almost 300 years ago, someone in Sarah’s bloodline cut down, then hauled up this hill to shave into logs to build this cabin.” He sighs, in awe. “Just one of hundreds of logs that it took to create the miracle of this place.” A wet wind sneaks through the cabin’s slats as Austin gestures to the rough-hewn ceiling beams and a crooked window. “That kind of effort,” he says, and pauses. “It would be terrible not to try to save it.”

In the Chatham Rabbits’ song about Sarah’s peculiar great-aunt who loved squirrel stew, the singer declares, “There’s something good work can do — workin’ makes you feel.” It’s a sentiment that seems to animate this creative couple, a crossing of two streams: tradition and ambition. In their music and their lifestyle, Sarah and Austin McCombie have struck a delicate harmony between past and future, toil and dreams.

Related: The true story of the early-20th-century Chatham County rabbit boom.

print it

This story was published on Feb 24, 2023

Billy Warden

Billy Warden is a Raleigh-based writer, TV producer, and marketing executive as well as two-time TEDx speaker and longtime singer with the glam rock band The Floating Children. His work has been recognized with a Muse Creative Arts award, Telly awards, and a regional Emmy nomination.