The Tennessee Three

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Tennessee Three
Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three in 1961.
Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three in 1961.
Background information
OriginMemphis, Tennessee
GenresCountry, rock and roll, rockabilly, blues
Years active
  • 1953−2003
  • 2006-2008
Past membersLuther Perkins
Marshall Grant
W.S. Holland
Carl Perkins
Bob Wootton
Gordon Terry
John Carter Cash
Many others (see timeline)

The Tennessee Three was the backing band for singer Johnny Cash for nearly 25 years; he was known especially for his country/rockabilly style, although he won awards in numerous categories. In 1980, he reorganized the group, expanding it and naming it the Great Eighties Eight. The band provided the unique backing that would come to be recognized by fans as "the Johnny Cash sound."


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.[1][2]

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.[3] 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.[4] Holland has been credited as one of the first country music 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.

In 1971, the group recorded an instrumental album dedicated to Perkins: The Tennessee Three: The Sound Behind Johnny Cash.

Through the 1970s, the Tennessee Three continued to work as Cash's studio and stage backing group. One major exception occurred in 1975 when Columbia Records, seeking to update Cash's sound, had the singer record an album with a new set of session musicians (including members of Elvis Presley's touring band), titled John R. Cash. This was the only major Cash recording of the era on which no member of the Tennessee Three participated. The album was unsuccessful. The next album released, Look at Them Beans, reinstated both the Tennessee Three as core session musicians and the accompanying Johnny Cash sound.

In 1980, Marshall Grant left to become manager of the Statler Brothers. He decided to discontinue using the name, "The Tennessee Three", ostensibly for legal reasons (Grant had filed a lawsuit against Cash, which was settled out-of-court years later). The reconstituted band was called The Great Eighties Eight after Grant left. Since that time, others joined the group, with Wootton and Holland remaining off-and-on as the group's anchors.

In September 1989, Cash hired Kerry Marx and Steve Logan as guitarist and bassist, respectively, and renamed the group The Johnny Cash Show Band. By the early 1990s, the band consisted of Bob Wootton (guitar), W.S. Holland (drums), Dave Roe (upright bass), the singer's son John Carter Cash (rhythm guitar), and Earl Poole Ball (piano). This was the final configuration of the Johnny Cash Show Band until Cash's death in 2003. (Marty Stuart joined the group on guitar for a one-off performance of Cash's version of "Rusty Cage" on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1996). The group made its final appearance backing Cash (with Marshall Grant in a surprise appearance on string bass) on April 6, 1999, while taping a TNT television special in New York City.[5]

After Cash's death, in 2006 then-manager Trevor Chowning revived the band's career. They recorded and released a tribute album to Johnny Cash titled The Sound Must Go On.

In August 2007, the band made their first appearance in Scotland since the 1990s at the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, Inverness-shire. A planned Tennessee Three concert in January 2008, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Cash's Folsom Prison performance, was scrapped after disputes between prison managers and the concert promoter.

In January 2008, Wootton announced on his mySpace page that Holland had decided against continued touring with him. He formed the "W.S. Holland band". In an interview, Wootton said that Holland had decided to dissolve the partnership after Wootton backed out of playing the Folsom anniversary concert.

Wootton continued touring in 2008 as the Tennessee Three with drummer Rodney Blake Powell, and Vicky and Scarlett Wootton, to appreciative crowds across the globe. The band continued to tour throughout 2009, with the addition of upright bassist Lisa Horngren and drummer Derrick McCullough.[6]

In 2012, the band released another album, titled All Over Again. It includes a new song "How a Cowboy Has to Ride", written by Vicky Wootton.


(Key members listed in bold.)

  • Johnny Cash – lead vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar (1954–2003; died 2003)
  • Marshall Grant – bass, double bass (1954–1980; one-off performance in 1999; died 2011)
  • Luther Perkins – lead guitar (1954–1968; died 1968)
  • W. S. Holland – drums (1959—2008; died 2020) (Johnny Cash himself stated during a performance that Holland was "my drummer since 1959.")
  • Carl Perkins – rhythm guitar, lead guitar (1966–1974) (played second guitar with the band and lead in August 1968 after Luther died; died 1998)
  • Bob Wootton – lead guitar (1968–1989, 1992–2003; died 2017)
  • Larry Butler – piano (1972)
  • Bill Walker – piano (1973)
  • Larry McCoy – piano (1973–1976)
  • Jerry Hensley – rhythm guitar (1974–1982)
  • Tommy Williams – fiddle (1974)
  • Gordon Terry – fiddle (1975–1976)
  • Earl Poole Ball – piano (1977–1997)
  • Jack Hale Jr – trumpet (1978–1989) (Tennessee Trumpets)
  • Bob Lewin – French horn (1978–1989) (Tennessee Trumpets)
  • Marty Stuart — rhythm guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin (1980-1986; one-off appearance in 1996)
  • Bodie Powell – bass (1981)
  • John Carter Cash – rhythm guitar, backing vocals (1988–2003)
  • Dave Roe – bass (1992–2003)


Walk the Line[edit]

In the 2005 film biography of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, the band members were portrayed by the following actors. True to their supposed characterizations described earlier, Perkins was played as stiff and expressionless onstage, while Grant was played as animated and gregarious:

The film contains a subtle foreshadowing of Perkins' fate, in a brief scene in which Perkins falls asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth. Cash retrieves the cigarette and stubs it out. Cash later suggested that this was how Perkins's house had caught fire.

Promotion for the DVD release of Walk the Line by FOX Television included a history-making screening of the film at Hollywood's famed Arclight Cinema wherein actors in the film and their real-life counterparts performed a set of Cash's music prior to the screening. Original Tennessee Three members, Bob Wootton and W. S. Holland were among those to perform as well as serve on a speaking panel after the film. Also in attendance was Jane Seymour, wife of the film's producer, James Keach.


  1. ^ Top 40 Johnny Cash Moments,, archived from the original on 2012-01-20, retrieved 2011-02-05
  2. ^ Gilmore, Mikal (2008), Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and its Discontents, Free Press, p. 187, ISBN 978-0-7432-8745-6
  3. ^ One of Rock 'n Roll's First Music Stores,, retrieved 2011-02-05
  4. ^ Oermann, Robert (September 24, 2020). "Legendary Johnny Cash Drummer W.S. "Fluke" Holland Dies At 85". MusicRow. Retrieved July 24, 2023.
  5. ^ Brian Mansfield, Johnny Cash Carries On, USA Today, retrieved 2011-04-02
  6. ^ "Johnny Cash's Legendary Band: The Tennessee 3 programme", 2010,

External links[edit]