Jones was born in Douglas, Arizona, and grew up on a ranch. His physician father was one of the first settlers in Cochise County, Arizona. When his father died, his mother moved the family to Los Angeles, California. He earned a master's degree in zoology from the University of California at Berkeley and competed in rodeos to make money. However, he dropped out in 1934 to join the United States Navy. After his discharge, he worked at many jobs, including as a miner, a fire fighter, and a park ranger.
In his free time he wrote songs, and eventually more than 100 were recorded. His most famous, "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky", was written in 1948 (or 1949) when he worked for the National Park Service in Death Valley, California. As the guide for a group of Hollywood scouts who were looking at potential locations for films, he sang "Riders in the Sky" when they wanted to hear a sample of campfire music.
Jones wrote almost entirely Western music. He composed songs for several Western movies by Ford and others producers, including The Searchers and Rio Grande. He also played small parts in several westerns.
In 1955 Jones began writing for Disney Studios. He was co-writer of the theme song for the television series Cheyenne, and Jones wrote again for John Ford's Civil War film The Horse Soldiers, in which he made an uncredited appearance as Ulysses S. Grant in the opening scene. The theme song "I Left My Love" was featured throughout the film. The following year, he returned to working for Disney Studios.
He played Wilson W. Brown, a Union soldier and locomotive engineer who was a member of the Andrews Raid depicted in Disney's film The Great Locomotive Chase. In his final film, Ten Who Dared, Jones appeared as Seneca Howland, a member of John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition. He also is credited with writing "Jolly Rovers" and "Roll Along", which he sang in this film.
Three of his songs, "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky", the theme from The Searchers, and "Cowpoke", were chosen by members of the Western Writers of America as being among the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
Jones married twice. He had a daughter with his first wife, but later gave up all parental rights. His second marriage produced one son.
Jones died from cancer in Los Angeles in 1963 at the age of 49. He was buried at Julia Page Memorial Park in his hometown, Douglas, Arizona.