Bass was born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of a geologist, and he studied petroleum geology at Utah State University. He started writing short stories on his lunch breaks while working as a petroleum geologist in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1987, he moved with his wife, the artist Elizabeth Hughes, to the remote Yaak Valley near Troy, Montana, where he worked to protect his adopted home from roads and logging. Rick has served on the board of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and Round River Conservation Studies.
His papers are held at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library at Texas Tech University and Texas State University—San Marcos.
He was a finalist for the Story Prize in 2007 for his short story collection The Lives of Rocks. He was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award (autobiography) for Why I Came West (2008).