Shines was born in the community of Frayser, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was taught to play the guitar by his mother and spent most of his childhood in Memphis, playing slide guitar at an early age in juke joints and on the street. He moved to Hughes, Arkansas, in 1932 and worked on farms for three years, putting aside his music career. A chance meeting with Robert Johnson, his greatest influence, gave him the inspiration to return to music. In 1935, Shines began traveling with Johnson, touring in the United States and Canada. They parted in 1937, one year before Johnson’s death.
Shines played throughout the southern United States until 1941, when he settled in Chicago. There he found work in the construction industry but continued to play in local bars.
He made his first recording in 1946 for Columbia Records, but the takes were never released. He recorded for Chess Records in 1950, but again no records were released. He kept playing with blues musicians in the Chicago area for several more years. In 1952, Shines recorded what is considered his best work, for J.O.B. Records. The recordings were a commercial failure, and Shines, frustrated with the music industry, sold his equipment and returned to working in construction.