Roy Cash, Sr., older brother of Johnny Cash, was service manager at an Automobile Sales Company dealership in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1953, while the younger Cash was stationed in Germany with the US Air Force, Luther Perkins joined the staff at Automobile Sales, where he met co-workers Marshall Grant and A.W. 'Red' Kernodle. Grant, Kernodle and Perkins began bringing their guitars to work, and would play together when repair business was slow.
When Johnny Cash moved to Memphis after returning from Germany in 1954, Roy introduced him to Grant, Kernodle and Perkins. The four began to get together in the evenings at Perkins' or Grant's home and play songs. During this time they decided to form a band, with Grant moving to an upright bass, Kernodle to a six-string steel guitar, and Perkins buying a Fender Esquire electric guitar. Perkins' performance style on the Fender resulted in the band's famous steady, simple "boom-chicka-boom", or "freight train" rhythm.
By 1955, Cash and his bandmates were in the Memphis studio of Sun Records, to audition for owner Sam Phillips. Kernodle was so nervous that he left the session, not wanting to hold back the group. The band presented themselves as the "Tennessee Three", but Phillips suggested that they call themselves Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. When Cash moved to Columbia Records in 1958, the group followed him.
In 1960, drummer W.S. Holland joined the group, which was renamed The Tennessee Three. Holland has been credited as one of the first country drummers. In the early 1950s, he had collaborated with Cash on recordings, as well as having played with Carl Perkins (no relation to Luther Perkins) and the "Perkins Brothers Band". In 1961 the group released two instrumental singles on Columbia recorded in 1959 (before Holland joined) as The Tennessee Two and Friend. The four songs would later be included in Cash's greatest hits collection More of Old Golden Throat.
Luther Perkins died from injuries sustained in a house fire in August 1968, after reportedly having fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. Bob Wootton filled in as the group's guitarist at a performance the following month, and continued with the band. He participated in their landmark February 1969 performance with Cash at San Quentin State Prison, when the singer's live album was recorded.