The journey from broke songwriter to genre-busting Outlaw to legend hasn't taken much of a toll on Willie Nelson, as he was sharp, focused, funny and candid for a rare sit-down Q&A session, titled "One Hell of a Ride," at the Billboard Country Music Summit on June 5. Arriving late, a black-clad Nelson literally stepped off the Cannery's backstage freight elevator and onto the stage in typically nonchalant fashion, taking his seat and taking off his hat while the audience stood and applauded in respect. His eyes were bright and his smile was epic.

Nelson's version of what amounts to country music history is remarkably uncomplicated. He came to Nashville from Texas in the first place because "this is where the music folks are, and if you had something to sell, these folks here might buy it." Buy it they did, as artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young, Roy Orbison and Ray Price made hits out of Nelson's songs.

But success as a recording artist eluded Nelson, so much so that hog farming in nearby Ridgetop, Tenn., was a necessity, not a hobby. Nelson recounted how Nashville producers "watered down" demos he felt were finished products, and he upped and took his act back to Texas where longhairs and shorthairs got along and "the air was kind of smelling different." That's when the Outlaw tag was laid on Nelson and his scruffy compadres, and the journey into legend began in earnest. At the summit, Nelson embodied the title of his stellar new album, "Heroes," and ultimately revealed that his greatest joy today comes from watching his children blossom artistically, notably 23-year-old Lukas, a force on the new album (see story, page 16).

"I'm just glad for the moment," Nelson said. "That's about all I have time for now."••••