Tearing Down Steve Earle's Walmart Song

Angry, threatening lyrics perpetuate economic myths

Released on April 16, Steve Earle’s latest CD finds him once again supported by the stellar backup band, The Dukes (and the Duchesses). “The Low Highway” is quintessential Earle, harkening back to his classic debut “Guitar Town” from 1986 and 1997’s “El Corazon.”

That said, Earle frequently courts controversy with songs unabashedly revealing progressive themes. “Burnin’ It Down” from “The Low Highway” is no exception. Channeling the populist angst of Bruce Springsteen, Earle depicts a first-person narrator considering a felonious act in the first degree — specifically, setting fire to a Walmart — in a song that sounds remarkably close to Tommy James’ hit single “Dragging the Line.”

Boy, it appears Steve Earle sure does hate Walmart. So much that “The Low Highway” isn’t listed as available to download from the superstore’s website. Seven of Earle’s previous releases, however, are.

“Burnin’ It Down” has been a staple of Earle’s live performances for at least the past 15 months, and there exists a plethora of videos of him performing the song on the Internet. This past June, Earle issued a video of him singing a verse of the song and delivering a motivational message to activists — including fellow musicians Tom Morello and Ben Harper — protesting the building of a Walmart in the Chinatown area of Los Angeles.

“It’s gonna take up about half the neighborhood,” Earle pontificates. “And I’ve never known Walmart to be a good neighbor in any town it’s ever moved into.” The video ends with a placard that reads: “March Against Low Wage Jobs” that gives the date and location of the protest, which, incidentally, was sponsored by the local AFLCIO, and this: “Wal-Mart/How the 1% Hurts the 99%.”

This writer knows he’s going to take it on the chin from his hipster readers who adhere to the same anti-Walmart gospel espoused by Earle, but it must be said that if you hate big-box stores such as Walmart or Meijer than you simply don’t know much about basic economics nor do you care much for the plight of the poor or simply those shoppers seeking the convenience of finding items they desire at guaranteed low prices.

 As noted by John Semmons of the Foundation for Economic Education:

Low prices benefit both the consumers and the overall economy, besides being a winning strategy for Walmart. Every dollar a consumer saves on a purchase enables him or her to buy other items. More of consumers’ needs and wants can be fulfilled when prices are lower than when prices are higher. Because a consumer’s dollars go further at lower prices, more merchandise can be manufactured and sold. All the businesses making and selling these other products and services are helped.

Art Carden, also writing for FEE, says there are reasons to negatively criticize Walmart, but low wages isn’t one of them:

Critics claim that Walmart can deliver low prices because it destroys jobs, lowers labor standards, and squeezes suppliers. The data, however, do not support the first two, while the third is misleading. Retail labor market studies by University of Missouri economist Emek Basker show that Walmart modestly increases retail employment. Critics are quick to counter by questioning the quality of those jobs, correctly noting that Walmart pays less than its unionized competitors. However, this should be qualified. Union pay scales restrict the labor pool from which unionized stores can hire: If the union contract specifies minimum compensation of $12 per hour, then people whose labor cannot produce at least that much in revenue will not be hired. Since Walmart is an open shop, it has no such artificial floor for the productivity of the people it can hire. Those who would not be employable under union conditions are made better off despite the illusion of exploitation.

Back to Steve Earle and his arsonist ditty. “Burnin’ It Down” follows in the long tradition of depicting disenfranchised characters from William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to Paul Thorn’s “Burn Down the Trailer Park” with a penchant for gasoline and a match. Earle’s narrator is in the Walmart parking lot, “thinking about burnin’ it down, boys,” He’s doing more than thinking, however, as he presents listeners with an inventory of the incendiaries carried in the bed of his pickup.

Catharsis is never reached, thankfully, in Earle’s song. Listeners — at least this listener — are led to believe the narrator will carry through on his plot to set aflame the store built “half-a-mile from where I grew up,” but the song ends before the plot reaches fruition because, as the narrator acknowledges, the store’s open 24 hours, which provides him ample opportunities.

All told, “Burnin’ It Down” is the one bum note on an otherwise excellent album. As a song from a master of the story-song genre it’s a throwaway. Not to be burned, mind you, but perhaps simply ignored.