Kelton was born at a place called Horse Camp on the Five Wells Ranch, owned by the Scharbauer Cattle Company, in Andrews County, Texas ... just east of the city of Andrews ... to Robert William "Buck" Kelton- (30 June 1901...15 June 1980) and Neta Beatrice "Bea" (née Parker-; 15 May 1904...27 April 1993) Kelton.
When Kelton was three years old, the family moved to the McElroy Ranch located in the counties of Crane and Upton, Texas, near the city of Crane, south-southwest of Midland. He spent the rest of his childhood at three different homestead on the McElroy Ranch, where his father was employed for thirty-six years.
After graduation from Crane High School, Kelton attended The University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas, in 1942-1944 and again from 1946—1948, when he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism. From 1944-1946, Kelton had served in the U.S. Army, with combat infantry experience in Europe during World War II.
He and Anni Lipp, a native of Austria, were married and they had three children. One son, Gerhard (also known as "Gary") of Plainview, is a son of Anni's who was adopted by Kelton. The other son and a daughter are Steve Kelton and Kathy Kelton, both of San Angelo. He also had three brothers, Merle Kelton and his wife, Ann, of May, Texas; Bill Kelton and his wife, Pat, of Atlanta, Texas; and Eugene Kelton and his wife, Peggy, of McCamey, Texas.
From 1948-1963, Kelton was the farm-and-ranch editor for the San Angelo Standard-Times. For five years he was editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine and another twenty-two years he was editor of Livestock Weekly, from which he retired in 1990.
His memoir, Sandhills Boy, was published in 2007.
Three of his novels have been featured in Reader's Digest Condensed Books.
Seven Kelton novels, Buffalo Wagons, The Day the Cowboys Quit, The Time It Never Rained, Eyes of the Hawk, Slaughter, The Far Canyon and The Way of the Coyote, have won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America.
Three others, City: The Time It Never Rained, The Good Old Boys and The Man Who Rode Midnight, have received Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The Good Old Boys was made into a Turner Network Television film, also named The Good Old Boys (1995) starring Tommy Lee Jones.
In 1977, Kelton received an Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement (named for Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian). In April 1997, the Texas State Legislature proclaimed "Elmer Kelton Day". In 1998, he received the first Lone Star Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Larry McMurtry Center for Arts and Humanities at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas.
He has received honorary doctorates from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and Texas Tech University at Lubbock, Texas. Kelton also received a lifetime achievement award from the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock. He is honored with a star in the sidewalk at the Fort Worth Stockyards in Fort Worth, Texas.
Kelton was working on another book but faced multiple health problems in the spring of 2009. The book was not completed before he died on August 22, 2009, of natural causes.
His funeral was held on August 27, 2009, at the First United Methodist Church in San Angelo. A life-size statue of Kelton by Raul Ruiz is under construction at the Tom Green County Library in San Angelo.