Brian Ralph

Chatham Rabbits

Sarah Osborne McCombie ’15 is on the road again. Driving mountainous roads in a towering black bus, she and her husband, Austin, travel to shows across the country.

The duo leads Chatham Rabbits, a roots band with deep WPU ties. Honing the feel of rural North Carolina, Sarah and Austin create music that melds bluegrass acoustics with traditional folk sounds.

Often, they find inspiration for their music in the nature they travel through — like when they drove to the Badlands to finish an album. You can almost imagine the sweeping landscapes and rustic roads in the strums of their guitar and banjo.

Now, they’re using their time on the road to call me. To share the story of where the musical pair began.

Finding music with each other

“I had always had a passion for music, but being in a band, that was something that just found me,” Sarah said. 

The opportunity to be in a band was first found at her alma mater. 

 Known then as Peace College, Sarah’s first connection with a band was through a Peace staff member. Through a “friend of a friend” type connection, Sarah learned that the band the South Carolina Broadcasters needed a banjo player and singer. She was drawn to put her name in for the role.

Though Sarah had to learn banjo to join, the band eagerly welcomed her in. She started playing at show after show and fell in love with the world of performing and songwriting.  

However, she had to balance her time as a full-time student and band member. Accommodating professors made this possible — from being flexible with deadlines to offering independent study courses. “My professors allowed me to be in the band and still have a college experience. Some of my professors even came to shows. They were so supportive of my music career,” she said. 

They gave her the foundation needed to jump to her next steps. 

The summer before Sarah’s senior year, the band played the opener for a show at the eclectic venue, Cat’s Cradle, located a mile away from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Waiting eagerly for the main act, then 20-year-old Austin McCombie had never heard of the opening band. But when the lights came on, Austin’s attention suddenly perked up as he saw red-headed Sarah perform. He knew he had to get in touch with her after the show. 

After the show, he found the band’s page on Facebook and reached out. Six months later, she replied. A few messages later, they met for pizza and beer at Trophy Brewing Company. 

 There was an instant connection as the two found a shared love for music. Austin had grown up listening to old-time music and bluegrass with his family. While he explored electronic music, his interest in Sarah lead him to try out the fiddle. 

As their relationship grew, they experimented playing together as a hobby, and eventually even playing for free food. Sarah left the South Carolina Broadcasters to focus on honing their music.

But then, graduation hit. They got engaged, bought a house, and started full-time jobs. Austin worked as a financial advisor in Raleigh while Sarah taught music at Montessori Community School in Durham. 

After several years, feelings of burnout crept in at their jobs. A combination of difficult managers combined with time-consuming careers made them crave a different career. 

They longed to recapture the feeling they had when they played together in college. They tossed around the idea of making a living by doing just that. 

“We thought “Why not give it a shot?’ The worst thing that happens is we have to go back and get jobs,” Sarah said. “It was a scary experience, but it seemed scarier to us to not take the plunge and give it a shot.”

With the decision made, the couple needed a name for their new venture. They looked for inspiration in their current town of Bynum. 

Located in Chatham County, the area was known a century ago for its prized cash crop of rabbits. This crop was so renowned that the town-mill string band called itself Chatham Rabbits. To top it off, a player from that band lived in the very house that Austin and Sarah lived in at the time. 

And so, the modern-day Chatham Rabbits were made. 

Making their dream into a career

The first year of pursuing Chatham Rabbits was not easy. Sarah and Austin booked all their performances while writing new song after song.

The duo played at any event they could find — from funerals to breweries to birthday parties — they saved up money and fans one by one. “We added our fans at a grassroots level. We would see our audiences grow as we returned to cities and venues,” she said.

Audiences kept clamoring to their shows and over the next few years, they saw their popularity rise. 

They grew from a tour van to a tour bus. From a team of two, to employing three people and working with a booking agent and management company. From playing in North Carolina to playing at venues across the country.

Then, the band had the chance to be featured in its own Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) show. 

A film crew followed the musicians on the road for five months. The footage was compiled into a documentary-style show and broadcast in May 2022. 

“There were so many moments we didn’t realize they had captured, from fan interaction to little, funny mishaps,” Sarah said. “We are so proud of us for managing it and completing it — it was so much work.”

Between the show and additional employees, the band has had a “sharp pivot from four years ago,” Sarah said. 

“We are grateful for the success but are learning how to have balance in the new lifestyle,” she said. “Before Chatham Rabbits, we didn’t have enough time together. And now we have too much together. We are working all the time and it’s important for us to have hobbies and friends outside of the band.”

Staying Connected to WPU Roots

While Sarah is making it big with her and her husband’s band, she looks back to how WPU has impacted where she is today. Not only did it lead her to be in her first band, but it also helped craft her songwriting skills. 

An English major, her writing skills blossomed in her classes with Dr. Wade Newhouse, WPU Theatre Program Director and English Professor. “Professors like Dr. Newhouse were my favorite part of Peace. They helped me to get to where I am today,” she said. 

The decision to attend WPU came from a family connection. Sarah’s mom, Nancy E. Osborne ’86, attended the school. 

Because of that, Sarah grew up going to Peace reunions with her mom and being surrounded by the tight-knit Peace culture. She saw her mom and friends share inside jokes and funny traditions from their college days. They instilled in Sarah a love for Peace.

It felt like fate when Sarah decided to attend her mom’s alma mater. To top it off, when Sarah moved into her freshman dorm room, she discovered that her room was the exact one her mom stayed in while a student — Ross 219. 

While Sarah’s freshman year was comprised of an all-women student body, the end of the year brought an announcement. WPU would shift to co-ed. 

Surprising in the moment, Sarah appreciated how the change taught her to pivot and be flexible.

“It made me an even better and stronger person to go through those changes,” Sarah said. “And what really made my experience at Peace incredible was, that no matter the changes, the quality of my education and my professors were just incredible.”

 Now, Sarah continues to stay connected with WPU. In 2021, Chatham Rabbits performed at WPU’s Day of Giving, streamed live on Facebook.

And anytime their tour bus takes them to Raleigh, they can’t help but stop by campus to see familiar faces. 

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