It’s a familiar routine for Lofgren, the brilliant guitarist who’s spent the last 38 years on the road playing rock ‘n’ roll – leading his own bands, or with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Ringo Starr.

Lofgren’s approaching his 55th birthday, but playing for an audience just never gets old.

“I love playing live,” Lofgren says with genuine enthusiasm. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Elvis Presley, or me playing in a bar. You cannot buy your way out of the rule: There’s only one chance tonight. You might go on a few minutes late, but you gotta go out there.”

The always affable Lofgren is back on tour promoting his first studio album in four years, Sacred Weapon. Typically, it includes guest appearances from friends gathered along Lofgren’s long musical road: Willie Nelson does a duet, while David Crosby and Graham Nash provide backing vocals on another song.

“I have some good friends, and I’m just trying to be honest about making music,” Lofgren explains. “And those are some of the people who are willing to help you, even though you’re not with the record deal, and the top 10, and all that political stuff.”

Lofgren’s last recording contract was a dozen years ago, and he doesn’t miss working for a label. These days, he sells CDs through his Web site and works with a distributor. The new album is his 17th solo album, and it garnered the sort of glowing reviews that made him one of the mid-1970s contenders for the next big thing.

Lofgren, still fit in blue jeans and a black T-shirt, acknowledges that was a long time ago.

“The record companies? I’m just someone who’s a failure to them,” Lofgren says. “‘You made records for 37 years and you never had a hit.’ They’re just business people, and I’m a bad bet. I can’t argue. I’m not going to tell someone what to do with their business. But I’m not going to grovel.”

Lofgren’s dressing room is tight, and he travels light: There’s a guitar case and a small boom box. On this afternoon, it’s playing John Lennon. It’s no surprise that Lofgren’s tastes run to classic rock and its antecedents.

“I still put on Modern Sounds in Country and Western (Music) by Ray Charles, and any dingy dressing room brightens up for me,” Lofgren says. “Thank God music is like a medicinal, healing thing.”

Playing clubs brings Lofgren back to his roots. But he’s become better known as one of rock’s great sidemen.

He played guitar in Nelson’s band when the country music great performed last December at the Kennedy Center. They performed “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” in honor of Robert Redford.

Earlier in the day, Lofgren and Nelson drove out to a Virginia recording studio to work on the guitarist’s new song, “In Your Hands.”

“We listened to it on the way over, and I got a little greedy and asked him to try the second verse,” Lofgren recalls. “And you know, it was so effortless for him. All his ideas were great. We just picked the ones that fit in best with what I was doing.”The new album features Lofgren playing several instruments that he picked up while playing in Springsteen’s E Street Band: dulcimer, dobro, pedal steel.

“One of the fringe benefits when I came to this record after The Rising (tour), I was a decent beginner now on four or five new instruments,” says Lofgren. “And it was fun to write on ’em. … To have three or four inherently different sounds to draw on instantly gave me more colors, and kept me more engaged.”

Lofgren enjoys a rabid cult following, which is what fuels his work these days. Live shows remain a particularly potent motivation.

“It’s kind of my lifeblood,” he says of his fans. “It’s a small audience, but I’m very grateful for it. You make music to share.”