He was called John Ned Shines when he was born, in Frayser, Tennessee. He spent most of his childhood in Memphis playing slide guitar for money on the streets. He listened to and was inspired by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Howlin’ Wolf, but he was taught to play the guitar by his mother. Shines moved to Hughes, Arkansas in 1932 and worked on farms for three years. "First time I came to Helena was 1932, I think it was. That's the time I met Robert the first time." When he met Robert Johnson, his greatest influence, that gave him inspiration to return to music. In 1935, Shines began playing with Johnson around the south and heading as far north as Ontario where they appeared on a local radio program. The two split up in 1937, one year before Johnson died. "He (Johnson) was alright to travel with, he was a good companion to travel with, 'cos he talked a lot and I didn't."
Shines played more in the U.S. South until 1941 when he decided to go back to Canada and then to Africa. He never made it past Chicago. In Chicago, Shines found work in the construction trade and continued to play in bars.
He made his first recording in 1946 for Columbia Records, but the music was never released. He later recorded for Chess was still the music was never released. He kept playing with blues musicians in the Chicago area for several more years. In 1952, Shines recorded for J.O.B. Records record label. The recordings were a failure and Shines sold his guitar and went back to construction.
In 1966, Vanguard Records found Shines taking photographs in a Chicago blues club and had him record tracks for the third installment of Chicago/The Blues/Today! The album has since then become a blues classic.
Shines played with the Chicago All Stars and Lee Jackson, Big Walter Horton and Willie Dixon. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Shines played with Robert Johnson's stepson, Robert Lockwood, Jr.. In 1980, Shines stopped played after he suffered a stroke. He managed to release one last album, Back To The Country.