Southern Soul

Riding high from their first tour as full-time musicians, The Suffers play on a historic stage just south of Charlotte.

Kam Franklin used to work as a gas and power trade analyst at a Houston investment bank. By day, she ran the numbers. By night, she was singing big numbers with her big band, The Suffers. The group—all 10 of them—quit their jobs in January 2015 to become full-time musicians. A spot on David Letterman’s show was the catalyst that allowed them to make the leap.

“People said we couldn’t do it,” says Franklin, the group’s frontwoman (and only woman) and lyricist. “They said we couldn’t do it without a label. It felt like giving birth, but we did it.” A successful Kickstarter campaign led to the release of their self-titled album last February. Besides The Late Show, the gospel/soul band has performed for The Daily Show, NPR’s Tiny Desk concert, the Newport Folk Fest, South by Southwest, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

But accolades and a steady touring schedule don’t necessarily mean riches. “For us, it’s about love and chasing the dream,” Franklin says. This month, the dream brings them to the McCelvey Center in York, S.C. On Saturday, Feb. 18, they’re part of the Southern Sound Series, which also includes mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull (who played in January); bluegrass darlings the Steep Canyon Rangers (March 10); and the SteelDrivers (April 22), a Grammy-winning bluegrass band from legendary Muscle Shoals, Ala. It’s a little series that draws big names—and occasionally, up-and-comers.   

The McCelvey’s historic Lowry Family Theater seats around 500 and has what York’s Culture and Heritage Museums’ Marie Cheek, the community relations coordinator, calls “a lovely 1920s ambiance.” The Center, the original site of the Yorkville Female Academy founded in 1852, hosts the annual music series, which has included the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jerry Douglas, and two late, great Southern legends—Doc Watson and Ralph Stanley.

Because of its York location, there are small-town touches at these shows. The Friends of the McCelvey bake homemade sweets to sell during intermission. Cheek points out even more benefits of a small-town venue: “This is York. We don’t have any traffic, and there’s plenty of free parking.”

But the biggest reason to make the short drive across the border? The Suffers themselves. Franklin, who sounds a little like Mavis Staples and even more like Betty Wright and counts Dolly Parton, Prince, and Gladys Knight among her influences, has a magnetic stage presence. “Kam can really belt it out,” says Cheek. “She’s got a big voice and so much energy. This will be a great room to hear her.”

If her sound is a throwback to the 1960s, her lyrics are, too. In “Make Some Room,” she coos: “Come on let me cook for you baby/Just relax, ‘cuz I’m cleaning, too/I love you like I’ve known you forever/I just need you to make some room.”

Despite their somewhat maudlin name, The Suffers sound like a party. Their band’s name has nothing to do with suffering— for their art or anything else. They took it from a 1978 Jamaican movie Rockers in which, as Franklin explains, “The musicians aren’t being rewarded for the music they create. Everyone else is benefitting financially, but not the musicians.” But The Suffers aren’t suffering. Thanks to Kickstarter, they were able to buck the traditional system that would’ve seen record label insiders calling the shots—and profiting.

They call their sound “Gulf Coast soul” and say it’s a fusion of gospel, soul, country, ska, and reggae. Franklin says their sound is “the sound of Houston.” However you choose to classify the sound, it’s nothing like the investment bank where Franklin—not so long ago—worked her day job while daydreaming of bigger things. Catch this next big thing before they’re too big for the McCelvey.

All Southern Sound Series concerts start at 7:30 p.m. The McCelvey Center is at 212 E. Jefferson St. in York, S.C. Tickets, $25 for Culture and Heritage Museum Members and $30 for general admission, are available online at www.chmuseums.org/southernsoundseries or by phone at 803.909.7313 or 803.909.7488