Chatham Rabbits are husband and wife duo Austin and Sarah McCombie, and their second album is full of sweet harmonies and a sense of quiet joy. It was recorded live in a lakeside cabin in Virginia and provides a sense of listening in the intimate surroundings that suit this music so well. The instrumentation is from the bluegrass tradition with fiddles, banjos, mandolins and pedal steels, and there are clearly fine players here. There’s an adroit use of the pedal steel throughout for emphasis and fills, but in the main the band back the material and the singing.
And the singing is gorgeous. Sarah McCombie sings with a deserved confidence. As with so many great singers it’s hard to define what that extra ingredient is, but it is there. Their harmonies are irresistible and they have that magical songwriting gift of producing pieces that don’t sound like they were written. Rather, songs like ‘Clean Slate’ which depicts an early fresh morning and an appreciation of company and simple things, and the uptempo, vital and joyous ‘Old and Blue’ (a song that is surely a highlight in a live show) sound like they were somehow always there.
There’s a recurring theme about understanding and valuing the people around you. ‘Oxen’ provides the theme for the album title and is a metaphor for the importance of others in facing adversity: “You’ll find refuge / You’ll find strength / From the one beside you / Helping to pull the weight”
The McCombies also have an ability to produce songs that don’t go where you expect and quietly challenge the more conservative elements of the bluegrass and country tradition. ‘The Pledge’ starts with a paean to the beauty of Virginia, but moves on to a remembrance of slavery and a request to “Throw off these white man’s blues../ Add leaves to the table / Make more room / We can open the parlour too”. ‘I Grew Up Loving Jesus’ suggests a saccharine gospel tune. However, the song’s character is contemplating his wife’s early death, and the value of the time spent praying. The music is so seductive you only start to think about the message afterwards.
As if there wasn’t enough to love about this album it finishes with ‘The Hinges’, which is about eschewing renovation, passing on the dusting and doing more important things: “Cobwebs on the door / Mean that we have time / To make love even more.” This must surely be the only song on the subject, and is in addition a mantra for us all.
This is compassionate music with singing that lifts the soul. Chatham Rabbits have made room in their parlour and you are missing out if you don’t join them.