All I Want From You, the shining debut album from traditional folk and bluegrass duo Chatham Rabbits, tells you to listen. Produced by Jerry Brown (Carolina Chocolate Drops, Doc Watson) at the famed Rubber Room Studio in Chapel Hill and featuring fiddle from Libby Rodenbough of Mipso and mandolin from Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange, All I Want From You blooms with hand-me-down acoustics. But listen closer and it’s the solid songwriting from the Rabbits, husband and wife duo Sarah and Austin McCombie, that makes All I Want From You a patchwork of stories, hard worn and holy, coming down from another time.
The album tells tales of domestic abuse, suicide, baptism, and fires—all held by what Sarah describes as “something primal” and what Austin describes as “natural”—that is the sound Sarah makes when she clawhammers her 1921 banjo and how Austin joins in with his 1941 Gibson guitar. A sound they shared only with each other back on their front porch in Bynum, North Carolina well before they hit the road and signed to Robust Records (Mipso; Hank, Pattie & The Current; Caleb Caudle).
Folks, the McCombies live by North Carolina’s state motto: To Be Rather Than To Seem.
The proof’s in the pudding—take “The Fire” written by Austin last year. Reminiscent of a Tom T. Hall song or some fabled short story, the character of Austin’s relative Anderson commands, “Go get the mule in the stable, It’s time to cut the sugar cane” after losing everything in a house fire. It’s a stunning moment on the album, speaking from the resilient rural world often unseen today.
While on the quieter “Heat Of The Day,” Sarah gives voice to an imagined sharecropper singing, “I wished to the Lord that I’d never been born or that love would set me free. But I’ll just wait for the heat of the day to make something up for me.” Sarah’s voice delivers sweet and clear over a lonely soaring fiddle played by Libby Rodenbough while the emotional weight swells to heavy. “I think Sarah’s pretty voice serves our music well,” Austin says, “We’re calling back to a time when people cried and stomped, sang and danced through their hard lives.”
The McCombies prefer to play in small country communities, at general stores and churches, and they like to tie in a hymn during the set. “It’s a way to tap into a place you might not recall,” Austin says. “Then we start playing and you remember, it brings everyone to the table.” Maybe this affinity is rooted in their own musical pasts. Sarah grew up Quaker on her family farm and first learned to sing African American Spirituals. In college, she discovered the Carters and joined the old-time trio The South Carolina Broadcasters. And when she met Austin, he told her how he learned to play blues after his late Uncle Bear put a guitar in his hands.
Maybe All I Want From You is best described as a testament to that union—a longing for all that’s true, good, and beautiful—and turning back to find it. You can hear it on the first track on the album, the first song Sarah and Austin wrote as one. “The wind blows and whispers your name. The dog sits on the porch, howlin’ out your name. I lay awake at night screamin’ out your name. Come home. Come home. Come home.” — Ashleigh Phillips