Thunder Ridge Nature Arena

A large crowd of people watching a house

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Image courtesy of Thunder Ridge Nature Arena

The king of the outdoors strikes again. Johnny Morris’ Thunder Ridge Nature Arena began its inaugural concert season with country music star, Morgan Wallen. Located just south of Branson, in Ridgedale, Missouri, the 18,000-capacity venue opened its gates to a sold-out crowd on May 25th.

As with any major venue opening, there were some delays and kinks in the logistics. Considering the winding topography of the Southern Missouri Ozarks, funneling nearly twenty thousand folks into a nature reserve is no small task. Last year Garth Brooks came in for a test run show, where concertgoers reported concerns about arriving and departing the venue. Less than a year later Morris’ team had doubled parking capacity and added two lanes in and out of the venue, in addition to many venue improvements. Having not attended the Garth concert, I can’t offer a fair comparison to my experience this year. Heck of a way to do a test run by bringing in arguably the biggest country music star of the past three decades. Full send, go big, or go home! 

The first show of the inaugural season was scheduled to be the “Concert for Conservation” featuring Chris Janson and my favorite group from this region, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Unfortunately, it was canceled due to severe weather predicted on the day of the show. Up next was the biggest country chart-topper of the past half-decade, Morgan Wallen. 

When this show was announced I gave it some serious consideration – not just for the music, but as a chance to visit the much-anticipated new venue Morris had built. Anyone who knows much about hunting, fishing, or conservation, should know Johnny Morris is the modern-day Walt Disney of the outdoor world. He has a unique way of perfectly bridging the gap between nature and people who might not experience it otherwise. The Ozarks are special, and this new venue does an excellent job of showcasing that beauty. If you have been lucky enough to visit neighboring Big Cedar Lodge, you have seen how seamlessly Morris and his team have woven a world-class resort into the Table Rock Lake hillside. If one were to ask what my favorite location to visit for a special occasion in the Midwest, Big Cedar is hands-down the answer. So much so that my wife and I got engaged at the Big Cedar Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail. Top-notch accommodations, delicious food, and fantastic amenities, but the real star is the surrounding landscape. You see truly the best the Ozarks has to offer. Table Rock Lake, and its deep, gin-clear water, likely hold the next state record smallmouth bass, and just down the hill, Lake Taneycomo could very well contain the next world record brown trout. Pro-tip, if your significant other isn’t the fishing or outdoorsy type, that’s okay, book a weekend at Big Cedar and you’ll both have plenty to do. There are many amenities including a world-class spa – make an appointment for them, and then you can hit the water! Both into fishing? Great! Hit up Lillys Landing or one of the many fishing guides in the area for your best chance at a trophy fish. Add in dinner reservations at Top of the Rock, and an evening concert at Thunder Ridge and you’ll have an unforgettable experience. Shuttle service for Top of the Rock and Thunder Ridge is included for guests at Big Cedar. 

We waited a bit late to get a room at Big Cedar for this show but found a decent room nearby. The venue advertised to arrive early and enjoy the “fan zone” before the doors officially opened. After driving from central MO and checking into our hotel we arrived at the venue approximately two hours before the start of the show. A quick 15 minutes after exiting Highway 86, we parked in the Buffalo Lot and walked to the gate. The Fan Zone (a gated area between the front entry and main venue access that included food and beverage vendors) was at capacity, so we had about a 30-minute line wait to enter. A nice lineup of new Ranger and Tracker boats greeted us as we walked in. Improvements will be made, and hopefully opening the doors two hours before show time would help elevate the bottleneck of entering the facility.

I’ve been to many, many concerts. Likely, into the thousands if I had to guess. During my twenties, I attended or played in more than 100 music events in one year alone. During the past 30 years of concert attendance coast-to-coast, I’ve just about seen it all. When I heard that Johnny Morris intended to build a music venue, I knew it would be special. Where else would my love of the outdoors and music join in one location? Knowing my daughter is a huge Morgan Wallen fan made the decision easy to splurge on tickets for a fun father-daughter outing. 

After we made it through the ticket gate, you first see Veterans Tower. A tall, narrow, 12-story building made to resemble a lookout tower, like what you might find in a national park out west. Continuing along the path it opens to see the full spread of the venue. In the distance is Table Rock Lake, a perfectly framed backdrop from every angle. Where the concrete path ends patrons were claiming their spots on a large grassy slope for general admission lawn seating. Below the grass hillside is a flat reserved seated area and an impressive stage area. Food, beverage, and artist merchandise tents flank both sides of the stage areas. On either side of the arena, it’s 1,200 acres of pristine Ozark Forest. Not a condo, hotel, or bit of concrete in sight. It truly is a “nature arena”. All the land and buildings on the property have been permanently set aside as part of a not-for-profit foundation committed to conservation. Additional vending, bathrooms, and water filling stations are built into the side of the Ozark Mountain, almost cave-like in appearance. Everything seemed to have a purpose highlighting the natural area. From this veteran concertgoer’s vantage, if Morris’ goal was to create a Red Rocks Amphitheater of the Midwest, he nailed it. 

The Memorial Day weekend show began with a prayer, an acknowledgment of our troops, and a singing of the national anthem. With the American flag flying overhead in the warm, breezy air overlooking the lake, I can’t imagine a better way to start a holiday weekend. The Cadillac Three was the first opening act. A blend of guitar-driven rock and country set the tone for an energetic show. Ian Munsick was next up – the Wyoming-based group had a traditional country-western sound, complete with fiddle and bolo ties. Singer Munsick was engaged with the crowd throughout their 45-minute set. Not long after the sun set, the venue lighting went dim, and fog machines filled the stage where lasers, specialty lighting, and sound blasted with intensity. Large screens on both sides of the stage show a scene of Wallen running up to the stage with the crowd hollering in anticipation. With a large boom, Wallen busts through a theatrical exploding wall on stage. From there it was hit after hit song. Last year he set the record for the most songs on the Billboard Hot 100, simultaneously charting 36. What a great problem to have, deciding which hits to squeeze into a 24-song show. Judging by my daughter singing along to every song I don’t think there was a bad choice in the set. A particular highlight was when Wallen made his way through the crowd to a small stage directly below the general admission grass hillside. The three-song acoustic set was full of emotion, including a moment where the entire crowd waved their illuminated phones in unison, the modern-day version of a cigarette lighter anthem. 

Morgan acknowledged during the set “I can tell from two songs in what kind of crowd we have – I knew right away it was going to be a good one tonight!” It was his crowd, his night, from start to finish. Kudos to Johnny Morris for bringing this 10-year dream to fruition. Once again creating a new way of bringing people together to experience the great outdoors – this time a chart-topping country megastar and his crowd set in our beautiful Missouri Ozarks. We’re in the golden age of a visionary. Thank you to Morris and his team, Thunder Ridge Nature Arena is a treasure that will be enjoyed by generations to come.

-Adam Voight


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