Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood seated in the back of an old limousine, all smiling

How The Rolling Stones came to play unique nature arena for last ‘Hackney Diamonds’ show

One of the most popular rock bands of all time is going to the country for their final North American show, but the location of the venue was not selected by chance. A Rolling Stones band member’s friendship with the entrepreneur who built the arena in the Ozark mountains, along with Mick Jagger’s call for an escape to the wilderness in a song on the Hackney Diamonds album, are just two influences behind the band’s choice of venue.

When The Rolling Stones go on tour, it’s often difficult to find venues big enough to accommodate concertgoers who flock from nearby counties, countries, or even continents, to be a part of the experience. In 2019 when they came through Ontario on the No Filter tour, the concert became an affair of political proportions akin to the bidding process for the Olympic games.

That time, the group ended up performing at Burl’s Creek Event Grounds in Oro-Medonte township, just over an hour outside Toronto. The 600-acre playground near Barrie, with capacity for 100,000 people, is so big it may still hold the record for largest outdoor concert venue in Canada today. During the Canada Rocks With The Rolling Stones event over that Canada Day weekend, Oro-Medonte grew to over three times its size to 71,000 people, from around 22,000 residents.

So, the recent announcement that a show was being added to the Rolling Stones: Hackney Diamonds Tour ’24 concert schedule was news, but the venue’s small-town location, was not. The Stones will play their final concert on the North American stem of the tour in Ridgedale, Missouri, in the United States, which has about 1,000 residents.

Much smaller than Oro-Medonte, Ridgedale sits outside the core of big city hustle and bustle, and the concert site has enough space to build pop-up areas with the amenities of an urban centre without feeling penned in by buildings or immobilized by traffic.

Thunder Ridge Nature Arena in Ridgedale

The Stones concert is certain to put Ridgedale on the map, so to speak. The site is a nature lover’s dream situated in southern Taney County, near Branson, a larger town once referred to by the television show 60 Minutes as the “live music capital of the entire universe.”

Ridgedale is in a perfect location to attract audiences across neighbouring Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas state borders and syphon some of the spotlight from Branson – whose storied music history is as impressive as Nashville’s.

Thunder Ridge Nature Arena founder Johnny Morris says “The Stones are the most iconic rock-and-roll band ever, and we know they will put on a remarkable show,” that will become a big part of the region’s history.

Thunder Ridge Nature Arena promises to be a “musical postcard from Mother Nature,” as the only venue in the world completely dedicated to conservation. Surrounded by hills, valleys and lakes, the site is described as a “gift of the Ozarks to the world,” by Morris. 

The 1,200-acre property now has a 120-foot “Soldiers Tower” building modelled on historic national park fire and wildlife lookout stations and is a tribute to veterans, including Morris’ father who fought in WWII. The land sits opposite one of his other properties, Bass Pro Shops Big Cedar Lodge near Ridgedale. 

The plan is for the place to sustain itself into the future through proceeds from events held there. They’ve hosted rodeos, air shows, hot air balloon shows, conventions, symposiums (this could refer to either a conference or a drinking party), the U.S. Open Bowfishing Championship, the U.S. Open National Bass Tournament, the National 4-H Youth Council event – and concerts by Hank Williams Jr., Chris Janson, Dierks Bentley, Tracy Lawrence, and other musicians – on the property over the past 10 years. 

Reasons The Stones are playing the Ozarks: music as manifestation

Whether or not songwriting can be seen as a form of manifestation, The Stones got what they asked for in the lyrics of Dreamy Skies, a crisp, soulful country tune written by Stones vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, which they released on the Hackney Diamonds album last year.

Jagger sings lines like: “the wind and the wilderness calls” and repeats lyrics that call for relief from “the storm.” Not the kind of storm caused by nature, but man-made chaos, the kind stirred up by people. 

In this honest self-reflection the artist expresses a desire to “take a break from it all,” at least for a while. For sanity and to save his skin, the writer wishes to escape “From thе city and the suburbs and sprawl,” and go “way off the grid” with just an AM radio that plays Hank Williams songs.

The piece, created in the country music genre, has recognizable patterns and phrases built around a tempered brush of the drums, loose vocals and crisp blue notes that wind their way in and out of focus. Dreamy Skies stirs up images of dusty country roads and rivers winding their way through the wilderness, much like the one wished for in the lyrics. The concert in the Ozarks is the response to Jagger’s wish.

Chuck Leavell’s influence on The Stones venue choice

The other reason why this location was chosen for the final show on the North American stem of the tour is due to Stones keyboard player Chuck Leavell’s ongoing friendship with Morris, the entrepreneur who built the arena. The two met over 20 years ago when Leavell accepted an invitation to attend the opening of one of Morris’ Bass Pro Shops near his home in Macon, Georgia. They struck up a friendship based on their shared passion for conservation, a love of the outdoors and fishing.

Saying that Leavell is a nature lover is like saying the weather is warm in the Sahara. The musician has a National Outstanding Tree Farmer award, and one of only three Honorary Forest Ranger awards ever given out.

Leavell shares this love of nature and the outdoors with Morris. The highest award in conservation, the prestigious Audubon Medal, was given to Morris for his work in conservation alongside notable environmental advocates and social activists such as Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring — a couple of Rockefellers, former presidents, a first lady, Walt Disney, Robert Redford, Bette Midler, Sigourney Weaver, Ted Turner, and Sir David Attenborough.

Morris can sometimes be spotted fishing with Leavell in British Columbia, Canada, on similar terrain to that found in Ridgedale. Coincidentally, or not, The Stones’ show in Vancouver, B.C. is the only Canadian performance scheduled on the Hackney Diamonds tour.

Without the existing relationship between Leavell and Morris, The Rolling Stones representatives searching for a concert venue may not have ventured out into the countryside in the Ozarks. They ended up at the Garth Brooks concert at Thunder Ridge in September of 2022. Thoroughly impressed by the site, they decided to book it for the Hackney Diamonds tour.

Plans to get the venue ready for the mass migration is on track. Morgan Wallen christened the new space on May 25. Chris Stapleton, and Fuerza Regida will follow, in the lead up to The Rolling Stones concert on July 21 at Thunder Ridge.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

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