NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Willie Nelson grinned when told of a rumor that he and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones were spotted knocking back a few drinks at a famous Nashville honky-tonk.
"No, but it's a good story," Nelson said about the fictional meeting of music greats at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. "You pass it around if you want to."
Richards was definitely in Nashville, because a rapt audience saw him perform at the Ryman for the "Willie Nelson & Friends: Stars & Guitars" television taping. Other entertainers included R&B singer Brian McKnight, the Dixie Chicks, jazz singer Norah Jones and old-time country singer Ray Price.
The show, which airs Monday at 8 p.m. on the USA Network, is a two-hour valentine to Nelson, renowned for writing classic songs ("Crazy" and "On The Road Again"), a minimalist singing style, and as a champion for artistic freedom.
"He kind of did his own thing, and that makes me think I can kind of do my own thing," said alternative-country star Ryan Adams.
"Immediately, we're like 50 percent more cool then we were three hours ago," he said about performing with Nelson.
The April taping featured several unlikely combinations of artists, including Adams and Nelson on the reggae song "The Harder They Come," by Jimmy Cliff and a memorable lineup of Richards, Nelson, Adams and Hank Williams III on The Rolling Stones song "Dead Flowers."
"We got so much we had to cut a couple of songs, that will come out on another show or the DVD when they get around to it," Nelson said. "It's all good, too. We had to cut Sheryl Crow doing 'Whiskey River."'
It's easy to see why Nelson inspires his peers, given his wily knack for controlling his music and destiny.
Born in Abbott, Texas, Nelson, 69, soaked up the rich musical heritage of that state and was writing classics such as "Night Life" in the 1950s. He went on a songwriting tear in the 1960s after moving to Nashville, turning out enduring hits such as "Crazy" for Patsy Cline and "Funny How Time Slips Away" for Billy Walker.
Nelson recorded, but his own career didn't take off for years. He moved back to Texas in the early 1970s, and in that less-corporate atmosphere grew out his hair and beard, and found a younger audience.
He released a series of conceptual albums such as "Phases and Stages" and started an annual music festival in Austin that drew thousands. It all exploded in 1975, with "The Red Headed Stranger," an album record executives at Columbia refused to release initially because they thought the music was too unpolished. It gave Nelson his first No. 1 single, "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain."
In 1976, the "Wanted! The Outlaws" album, a compilation of songs by Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, became the first country music album to sell 1 million and made Nelson's so-called "outlaw country" the hot trend.
Since then, Nelson has experimented with nearly every music genre, including pop standards with his popular "Stardust" album, and duets with old friends like Price and surprising partners such as Julio Iglesias.
His latest album, "The Great Divide," features a duet with McKnight, and songs by Rob Thomas of matchbox 20.
"Willie is the consummate American songwriter, you know?" Thomas said. "He represents Americana -- not really America, but just the promise of America. ... He writes it out in a way that sounds so simple."
Vince Gill, who performs "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" during the special, said younger country artists owe much to Nelson.
"To me, Willie Nelson is single-handedly responsible for kind of bridging the gap, of telling young kids, rock 'n' rollers ... that some of this country music stuff was really cool," Gill said.
Role model for Keith
Toby Keith, who stands in for the recently deceased Jennings on "Good Hearted Woman" during the special, said Nelson is "what I want to grow up and be some day."
"I guess the most important decision I ever made in my career was to break away from what the labels were after, and just do my own thing," Keith said. "Willie's the icon for that."
Nelson said he didn't have much time to socialize with all the stars who performed, or to get emotional about the tribute. His weekend consisted of a Friday concert, a recording session with Porter Wagoner on Saturday followed by an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, then rehearsals and the taping of the special Sunday.
"I was too busy to cry," he said. "Otherwise, I'd have broken down several times."