Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
A trim and a tune
Chris Akers is the rock 'n' roll barber
of Monroe County

by Bob McEowen

Madison barber and guitar player Chris Akers, right, sings a song for bass player and Holliday school teacher Lloyann Lucas as the two practice in Akers’ Barbershop. One of only two barbershops in Monroe County, Chris’ shop is a favorite hang-out for area musicians.

In some ways, Akers’ Barbershop is like countless other barbershops in small towns. A red and white barber’s pole out front provides the only indication of the trade practiced inside. Old men sit in wooden theater seats and wait for their turn in a 1950s Paidar barber chair. Chris Akers trims one white head of hair after another while discussing sports, the weather or a death in the community.

But something is decidedly different about this shop, located along Highway 24 in Madison. The first clue comes as you enter a tiny vestibule that separates Chris’ barbershop from a workshop next door. The entryway is lined with concert posters and the sound of rock ‘n’ roll music, old R&B or bluegrass seeps through the walls. Open the shop’s interior door to and you enter a world that is part small-town institution, part museum and part music studio.

“I love playing guitar and I love music,” Chris says. “I guess it comes through when it’s what you really like.”

There’s no doubt about Chris’ interests as you enter his shop. A worn Fender Stratocaster guitar hangs next to a pair of amplifiers just to the side of his barber chair. By all appearances Chris is ready to put down his scissors, pick up his guitar and launch into a solo at any moment.

And, in fact, that happens almost every day. With a population of barely 600, Madison is hardly a thriving metropolis and the hair-cutting business is sporadic. In between trims, Chris has a lot of time to practice. When not playing guitar, Chris offers lessons to area players and fixes a few guitars. Other times, musician friends stop by to play.

Chris trims hair for a customer. Akers Barbershop is one of only two such businesses in the county and is situated halfway between Paris and Moberly on Highway 24.

“It’s a great place to kill an afternoon,” says Kelly Ray, a drummer from Shelbyville who frequents Akers’ Barbershop, occassionally with a set of congas in tow. “You always get a jam session there just about any time of the day.”

For Chris, his shop is simply a reaction to his own experiences in barbershops. “I wanted a place where the youth felt good, because when I went to the barber shop it was always a real stiff place.”

There’s nothing stiff about Akers’ Barbershop. Old 45-rpm records hug the ceiling. Fishing tackle, railroad artifacts, record album covers, historic photos and sports banners share wall space with antique barbershop items, old tools and pot metal model marquees pried from automobiles.

“Most barbershops have too sedate of an atmosphere. I did not want to have a black and white checked floor with Italian opera playing in the background and a little snap-up thing around my neck,” says Chris, a 46-year-old barber who forgoes the traditional white barber’s jacket and cuts hair wearing blue jeans or even overalls.

Chris says he fashions his establishment after Harry Smith’s welding shop and pool hall, a local gathering spot he remembers from his childhood in nearby Holliday, where he continues to live today.

“It was just full of these old guys in overalls that spit tobacco and smoked cigars and talked about politics and the neighbors and the usual garbage,” says Chris, who was allowed to hang out with the old men, despite his young age.

Another inspiration came from television, which provided a somewhat different ideal of the barbershop than what he learned at barber school.

“When I was a kid I was always watching Floyd on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and thinking, ‘That’s the guy who can go fishing whenever he wants,’” says Chris, a gregarious bear of a man with a hearty laugh who is always ready with a quip or a humorous anecdote.

Chris’ love of music came from his parents. His father headed a Western swing band. His mother sang in a dance band.

Chris regularly practices or plays with other musicians to while away the time between haircuts.

“It was kind of a fight because Dad was by the cradle saying, ‘Now this is Bob Wills. Listen son,’ and Mom’s over here going, ‘This is Nat King Cole,’” Chris says, imagining his parents’ early attempts to influence his musical tastes.

Chris got his first guitar when he was 8 years old, but like most people of his generation, he was raised on rock ‘n’ roll. Chris played in bands throughout his youth but his claims to fame were limited to playing local gigs and later working occasionally on recording sessions in Kansas City and Columbia. While success eluded Chris, he always fit the part of the rock star and rarely, if ever, saw the inside of a barbershop.

“I was the thing barbers hated,” he says. “I played in a band and from about seventh grade on I did not get my hair cut for years.”

After high school, Chris expanded his repertoire to include jazz guitar and even played with his mother’s band. For a few years, he was active on the bluegrass circuit and played mandolin and acoustic guitar at old time music festivals on weekends.

As much as Chris enjoyed playing music, he realized the life of a professional musician was not for him. “There’s a lot of guys I know that have real thin soles. They have four pairs of jeans and live on a bus,” he says. “I didn’t want to live like that.”

Until the mid-1980s Chris earned his living at a series of day jobs — factory work, construction, driving a school bus — while supplementing his income playing music on weekends. Married at the time, with a child on the way, Chris made a decision to change his life. He enrolled in barber school and applied himself to his new trade.

After barber school, Chris landed a job cutting hair in Moberly but says he soon became frustrated with the conservative work environment and an employer who didn’t appreciate his irreverent style or “hoodlum musician friends.”

“I thought, ‘This is not what I wanted out of being a barber,’” Chris says.

In 1986, he bought a tiny barbershop in Madison, one of only two in Monroe County, and created his ideal hair-cutting experience.

The walls of Chris' barbershop are filled with an eclectic mix of memorabilia and historical artifacts.

“A barbershop has always been a place — kind of like a Masonic lodge — where you go to find out what’s going on,” Chris says. “I’d say it’s an awful lot like Harry Smith’s old welding shop.”

But with a rock ‘n’ roll twist, in Chris’ case. In fact, it wasn’t long before Chris brought in his guitar to bide the time between haircuts.

“About the first week I was sitting here and thinking, ‘You know, this Wall Street Journal is boring.”

Since then the farmers, businessmen and retirees who come into Akers’ Barbershop have come to accept rock music on the stereo or the occasional jam session as just part of the scenery.

“It’s pretty funny,” Ray says. “They’ll walk in the door and Chris will say, ‘Let me finish this song and I’ll get right to you.’ A lot of times people come in for a haircut and they’ll say, ‘Aw, play another one.’”

In fact, Chris says, sometimes the confluence of crusty old barber patrons and pimple-faced guitar students produces surprising results.

“There will be some kid in having a lesson and I’ll get a hair cut,” Chris says. “Next thing, some old farmer that I didn’t know played guitar will speak up: ‘You’re making that D all wrong. Let me show you something.’

“Things like that happen,” he says. “They’re almost Norman Rockwell moments. It’s neat.”

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