Epstein was brought to the Santa Fe hospital by an unidentified female companion, who reportedly said he had been using heroin. A cause of death has not yet been given, but Epstein had battled substance abuse problems for years. Last May Petty and the Heartbreakers replaced him with Ron Blair (the band’s original bassist whom Epstein took over for twenty years ago) for a summer tour, due to “his ongoing personal problems.” Among those problems was a June 2001 arrest in Albuquerque in which Epstein and then-girlfriend Carlene Carter were picked up for driving a stolen sports utility vehicle and possession of black tar heroin. Carter claimed the drugs belonged to her, but that charge was dropped along with charges of receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle, levied against both.
“We are deeply saddened at the news of Howie’s passing,” a statement from Petty and the Heartbreakers said. “It’s difficult to put into words how much we loved him and will miss him. The world has lost a great talent and a kind soul. We can only take solace in knowing he is now at peace. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and his many friends.”
Born in Milwaukee in 1955, Epstein’s first big break came playing bass for John Hiatt in the late-Seventies, appearing on the singer-songwriter’s 1980 release, Two Bit Monsters, a year before he jojined Del Shannon on the rock legend’s 1981 album Drop Down and Get Me. By 1982, he was the new guy in the Heartbreakers, a job he would hold for two decades, playing bass and adding background vocals starting with 1982’s Long After Dark through 1999’s Echo. Petty also kept Epstein close-by for his two solo releases, 1989’s Full Moon Fever and 1994’s Wildflowers. He also made guest spots, playing bass on albums by Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon and Stevie Nicks in the Eighties.
Epstein also came into his own as a producer in the Nineties, displaying a knack for creating rural pop as catchy as it was rootsy. Though Epstein was active with the Heartbreakers in the early-Nineties, perhaps his best work was jump-starting a pair of stalled roots-rock careers. He recorded three well-regarded albums for Carlene Carter, coaxing her back from a seven-year hiatus with 1990’s I Fell in Love. He also worked similar magic for singer-songwriter John Prine. Epstein produced Prine’s 1991 comeback record, The Missing Years, one of his finest albums and his first in five years, as well as its follow-up, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings.
“Howie Epstein was a kind, patient, and extremely talented musician,” said Prine. “He took two years out of his life and dedicated his undivided attention to the making of two of my records. Those records changed my life thanks to Howie.”
Epstein joined Petty and the Heartbreakers last March when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the event also featured the band’s reunion with Blair, who two months later would take over full-time, playing on the band’s fall release, The Last DJ. “It’s sad,” Petty said at the time of Epstein’s departure from the Heartbreakers. “We all feel bad about it. [But] it just had to happen.”