Owens was born in Pin Hook, Lamar County, Texas. He was born into rural poverty, his father died when he was only a few days old and was educated at a one room school. He worked his way through college attending East Texas State Normal College in Commerce (now Texas A&M-Commerce), Paris Junior College and graduated from Southern Methodist University with a BA in English in 1932. He received a PhD in English from the University of Iowa in 1941.
In 1940, Owens made a live recording of Roosevelt "Grey Ghost" Williams singing "Hitler Blues," a song written by Williams. The song received mention in TIME magazine and was broadcast by BBC Radio on a program hosted by Alistair Cooke in 1940 about the American musical response to World War II. This recording was instrumental to the development of Williams' career.
Owens served in the Army from 1942 to 1945 and was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work in the intelligence service in the Philippines.
Owens taught at Wesley College in Greenville, Texas, Mississippi State College in Starkville and Texas A&M College in College Station, Texas. He taught at Columbia University from 1945 to 1974.