A Stricken Coal Miner's Daughter Mourns the Drowning of Her Favorite Son

In the autobiography that became the smash film Coal Miner’s Daughter, country-music superstar Loretta Lynn wrote, “My life has run from misery to happiness—and sometimes back to misery.” In less than 12 hours last month Loretta’s life ran deep, deep into misery, where it remains.

On July 22 her 34-year-old son and her heart’s favorite among her six children, Jack Benny Lynn, mounted his quarter horse, Black Jack, at the 5,000-acre family ranch, Hurricane Mills, near Waverly, Tenn. He called out to a ranch hand “I’m goin’ ridin’,” and went off into the hills. Sometime in the evening horse and rider tried to ford the often treacherous Duck River that bisects the Lynn spread. They never made it: On Tuesday a sheriff’s search party found the horse standing beneath a river bluff, and Jack’s body in the water nearby.

Very early in the morning, after Jack’s last ride, Loretta’s customized bus pulled into the Big Chief Auto Truck Plaza outside Mount Vernon, Ill. When a member of the singer’s entourage went into her suite at the back of the bus to ask her if she wanted coffee, the star was on the bed, unconscious. An ambulance rushed her to the intensive-care unit of the Good Samaritan Hospital in Mount Vernon; she was suffering from “exhaustion.” Loretta was not told about Jack until Wednesday morning, when her husband Oliver (Mooney) Lynn arrived by car to break the awful news.

“She took it much better than we expected,” said her manager of 12 years, David Skepner. “Loretta’s going to be all right.” Perhaps so, but over the years Loretta Lynn has had a lot to take—and a lot taken out of her.

Clawing her way up from the poverty of a Kentucky coal miner’s daughter to multimillionaire country-music queen, Loretta set a corrosive work regimen that never slackened. Nearly 10 months a year she is out rolling on the tour, doing two shows a night that can last till 2:30 in the morning. “When God made entertainers,” says Skepner, “he left out the word moderation.”

Nor has there been any rest back in Waverly. “When I get home,” she has said, “there is so much going on it makes me nervous.” Running the dude ranch, which is open to visitors, is Mooney’s job. But as a local acquaintance puts it, “Mooney (from moonshine) likes to have a few drinks”—though he is currently on the wagon. Mooney’s other nickname is “Doolittle.” Says an old musical associate of Loretta, “The name explains itself.”

For years Loretta has carried the family financially and borne its personal burdens. Last year the wife of second son Ernie Rey, who plays guitar behind Loretta, gave birth to stillborn twins: They were buried at Hurricane Mills. This year Ernie had a kidney removed. Betty, oldest of Lynn’s children at 35, is divorced with two daughters and helps answer Loretta’s fan mail. Cissie, married and mother of two, sings in some of Loretta’s shows. One of the 20-year-old twin daughters, Patsy, eloped at age 15, closely emulating Loretta’s own childhood marriage at age 13. Patsy, now divorced too, and twin sister Peggy, a recent bride, appear with Loretta and Mooney on Crisco commercials.

The combination of work and herding the family along has put Loretta in the hospital over a dozen times with an array of ailments, including bleeding ulcers and undiagnosed blackouts. Nine years ago she tried to block out her troubles with what she called “pills to put me to sleep.” A bout in Nashville’s Park View Hospital, with help from a psychiatrist, got her past the addiction, but she kept running beyond the brink of her formidable energy. When she collapsed in Mount Vernon, Skepner admitted, “This happened 16 months before.” However, he says, no pills are now involved; “the root cause is exhaustion—there wasn’t anything else wrong.”

Nothing, that is, until she learned about Jack Benny Lynn, whom she had named for her favorite comedian and “because we like the two names.” Patsy confirms her mom’s special feelings for Jack. “They were very close,” she says. “It was probably because he took after my dad.” Jack was shy and liked his time alone. According to Patsy, Jack also shared Mooney’s taste for liquor. He never worked at any real job, spending his time training horses and blacksmithing at the ranch. About a year ago liver and pancreas problems, together with a neck injury sustained when he was thrown from a horse, put Jack in the hospital, where doctors persuaded him to join Mooney on the wagon. Says Patsy, “He straightened up and started taking care of his family,” which included wife Barbara and their 4-year-old daughter Jenny and two teenage children by a previous marriage.

Surprisingly Barbara reacted to the drowning with absolute composure. “I have perfect peace about Jack,” she says. “This was his time.” She explained his death to Jenny by telling her Jack was in Heaven “riding horses with Jesus.”

Loretta fared not nearly so well. Despite her initial calm, “She tore all to pieces,” according to Patsy. Skepner and Mooney quickly put her on a chartered plane to Nashville, then took her to a local hospital, where she stayed until the Friday funeral at the white-framed Luff-Bowen funeral home in Waverly. Walking as though in a bad dream she joined 325 mourners as a tape played Willie Nelson’s Amazing Grace and Uncloudy Day.

There were some famous faces in the funeral crowd, among them country-music stars Tammy Wynette and Loretta’s sister, Crystal Gayle. But the 49-year-old Loretta seemed to notice no one. Nor did she seem to see the extravagant floral arrangements that rimmed the chapel walls, carrying cards from some of the biggest names in show business—Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, the Oak Ridge Boys. Pale and drawn, she stared at the oak casket draped with an American flag.

Loretta wept during the 45-minute service and the short ride to the family’s burial plot at Hurricane Mills. Just before the casket was lowered into the ground she lost her composure and broke into sobs. Her knees buckled and, supported by Mooney and the family housekeeper, she had to be helped to the car that took her back to the Nashville hospital.

“It’s finally started to hit her,” Skepner concedes. “She’s one worn-out lady.” He has canceled all her August appearances, but he believes she will be out again and running fast as ever, perhaps with a new song based on the tragedy (her early hit Mama, Why? came out of her own father’s death). “She does what she has to do and collapses later,” says Skepner. “Without that drive, superstars wouldn’t be superstars.”

Daughter Betty, too, is confident that “Mother’s strength will pull her through. She’s been sick and she works too hard, but Mother’s going to be fine.” Still, she admits, “All of us kids have hung on to each other all these years and it won’t be the same without Jack.” Then she adds, “But Jack went out in a blaze of glory. He just went off ridin’.”

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