Even when Loudon Wainwright III was writing songs in his early 20s, many of his characters were already looking back wistfully at their younger days -- such as the protagonist of his 1970 recording "School Days," who begins his tale, "In Delaware when I was younger . . . "
"They're songs written by a young man and originally recorded when he was a young man," says Wainwright, 61. "But now, tragically, I'm not a young man anymore, and I am singing about getting old when I am old."
This is more than an abstract issue for Wainwright. Earlier this year he got together with a band and made new recordings of 13 of his early songs. The resulting album, "Recovery," is a creative reinvention that forced him to negotiate the shifting emotional nuances wrought by the years.
As it happens, Wainwright isn't alone in this process. Two of his contemporaries, veteran Los Angeles rock band Little Feat and Louisiana-born swamp-rock pioneer Tony Joe White, also have recorded new takes on their old songs for their latest albums.
And they're following the recent lead of Alanis Morissette, who did a 10-year anniversary acoustic retake on "Jagged Little Pill" in 2005, and the Cowboy Junkies, who observed "The Trinity Session's" 20th last year by remaking the album with the help of guest singers Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt.
Earlier precedents of note include Joni Mitchell's 2002 release "Travelogue," which dressed some of her early songs in orchestral arrangements, and Roy Orbison's "In Dreams: the Greatest Hits," a 1987 collection in which the singer revisited "Crying," "Only the Lonely" and other classics.
Call it the lure of the legacy.
"I think what they are doing is mining the value of the work that they created," says Jeff Ayeroff, co-president of the record company Shangri-La Music and the executive who signed Orbison to Virgin for the greatest-hits project.
"If I was an artist I would be doing this, I would reinterpret my songs. Look what Joni Mitchell has done. I think some of the most brilliant work she's done is a reinterpretation. . . .
"When people take their body of work," Ayeroff says, "they're getting to play with what they created. 'I've got a set of blocks, I'm gonna stack 'em this way or I'm gonna stack 'em that way.' . . . An hommage to my own work. I think it's cool."
Maybe more than cool. It's fair to say that even a respectable album of new material by veteran artists such as these probably wouldn't register strongly in the pop world beyond their core fans. Revisiting proven material and adding a conceptual twist at least creates the potential for getting some attention.
"My sense of things was whatever kind of spotlight we would have on us would be a lot more than we've had in the last few years, and I think it would be a very enjoyable ride for everybody," says Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne. "I'd love to make a bigger splash this go-round. The band is playing beautifully."
Little Feat's "Join the Band" (which comes out Aug. 26) aims to do that by adding the Santana/"Supernatural" guest-star concept to the mix. Vince Gill, Dave Matthews, Brooks & Dunn and others join Jimmy Buffett, who bankrolled the project and served as executive producer, singing and playing "Willin'," "Sailing Shoes," "Fat Man in the Bathtub," "Oh Atlanta" and other staples of the band's funk-flavored repertoire.
"Jimmy rightfully said, 'If we're going to introduce this thing to a lot of people that may not know who you are or that have heard about you but have never really investigated you, what would we put in front of them?'" says Payne. "We never actually talked about it, but it seems to me this is a pretty good party album."
What's happening in these recent albums differs considerably than in decades past when record companies persuaded artists to re-record their hits simply to get around having to pay licensing fees to reissue the originals.
White's "Deep Cuts," for example, radically and effectively rejuvenates some of the maverick singer's early songs, including "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" and "High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish," with an atmospheric production employing samples and loops. (The album abstains from White's two best-known songs, "Polk Salad Annie" and "Rainy Night in Georgia.")
"Our two goals were, OK, we want something that will attract young listeners and, two, something that maybe we can get played in film and television," says Jody White, Tony Joe's son and the album's producer.
"Not only are we hoping to get some new, younger fans and keep the old fans entertained but at the same time give people an alternate take on something that may actually trigger them to go back and revisit the original."
On "Recovery," being released today, Wainwright brings band arrangements to songs that in all but two cases were originally recorded solo. The lineup of Patrick Warren, Greg Leisz, David Piltch and Jay Bellerose is best known for its work with musician and producer Joe Henry.