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Tom Petty's Heartbreakers Split with Bass Player

Veteran rock band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has parted ways with its bass player of 20 years, citing his “ongoing personal problems.”

Howie Epstein, who got into trouble with the law last year, will be replaced on tour by Ron Blair, the original member he subbed for in 1982, the band said in a statement on Thursday.

The group’s management firm declined to comment any further on the personnel shift, the first since drummer Stan Lynch left in 1994 after a blowout with bandleader Petty. The band, which formed in 1975, is best known for such hits as “American Girl,” “Refugee” and “You Got Lucky.”

Epstein, now 46, and partner Carlene Carter, daughter of country music icon June Carter Cash, were arrested in New Mexico last year while driving a vehicle that was reportedly stolen. Inside, state troopers found nearly three grams of black tar heroin and drug paraphernalia. Carter was charged with heroin possession, and both with receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle. The cases were ultimately dismissed.

Epstein, a Milwaukee native who had previously played with John Hiatt and Del Shannon, joined the Heartbreakers in 1982. In addition to his work on the bass, he sang harmony. Blair, now 49, had quit the band, exhausted by the hectic touring regimen and frustrated that his contributions were under-appreciated, according to the liner notes of the band’s 1995 boxed set, “Playback.” He opened a swimwear store in Los Angeles, and occasionally played around town.

“It was becoming a little too much, and I just needed to stop. And it was just kinda agreed that I would leave the band and they’d bring in somebody else,” Blair said in a Disney Channel documentary that aired in 1994.

Remarkably, in that documentary, he jokingly predicted that he would return to the fold.

“It’s been a real friendly situation, and I’m scheduled to rejoin the band in 2001, so it’s all cool!”

The band is preparing to launch a nine-week U.S. tour beginning June 27 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and will release a new studio album in October, its first since the commercially disappointing “Echo” in 1999.

Its first two albums, “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” (1976) and “You’re Gonna Get It!” (1978) were recently re-mastered and re-issued.

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