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Beyond the Grave, a Morbid Tale

A relentlessly prolific performer, Johnny Cash recorded stacks of unreleased tapes during his legendary career. Unearthed shortly after Cash's 2003 death, a batch of recordings marked "Personal File" turned out to contain an assortment of songs -- hymns, covers, tributes to family friends, and more -- that Cash had recorded solo and acoustic sometime in the '70s.

Forty-nine of those tracks have been compiled on a two-disc set titled Personal File, and the joy of the collection lies in its affable straightforwardness, as Cash calmly but solemnly introduces the occasional song with a plainspoken anecdote about its origin. Personal File works best as a cumulative experience, but its standout moment finds Cash reading the riveting, darkly funny Robert W. Service poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

Service's early-20th-century gem -- the story of an ill-fated Yukon gold-miner and the fate of his last remains -- finds its match in Cash, who lends "The Cremation of Sam McGee" the gravitas it requires. Personal File benefits immeasurably from Cash's spoken-word song introductions, so it makes sense that its finest moment highlights his enormous talents as a speaker. It's virtually impossible not to hang on his every word.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)