ALBUM REVIEW: Whitney Fenimore Embraces New Beginnings on ‘Leaving Ashwood’
Leaving small towns to pursue big dreams is one of the central tensions of country music. But what often isn't discussed is how necessary that departure sometimes is. Whitney Fenimore's Leaving Ashwood isn't a coming-of-age tale: the EP is about releasing the toxic beliefs of her upbringing and embracing a life quite different than she thought she'd leave.
Fenimore grew up in Oklahoma, a devoted youth leader in her conservative Christian community — which is how she met her first girlfriend. Fast forward a few years, and Fenimore finds herself a semi-finalist on Season 13 of The Voice. During this time, Fenimore grappled with coming out and intense heartbreak — romantic and otherwise. Leaving Ashwood, out on Sept. 23, represents Fenimore's latest chapter: settling down in Nashville with her wife Kendall Wessenberg, an Olympic skeleton athlete.
For anyone unaware of the pair's unlikely romance (Kendall liked a cover Whitney posted, and the algorithm kept bringing them together), Leaving Ashwood is still for you — it's just a fun detail to know about. Fenimore covers universal themes: the anxieties of a new relationship, amusement at how her hometown has changed and embracing change. So much of that comes from Fenimore's shedding of the shame that characterized her youth.
"Holding Hands," co-written with Marielle Kraft, recounts frustration with the internalized homophobia that prevents the narrator from holding her partner's hand in the airport. Even in a loving and fulfilling relationship, the song suggests, people in same-sex relationships must remain vigilant for their own safety — and to keep the walls of shame from pressing in.
"Way Back Home" follows with a gently wry commentary on how we can never come home again. Fenimore looks back on her hometown with affection — and relief that she's gone. The kids have moved on to other haunts, and nothing but condos can replace her memories of the good times. But these reminiscences are shadowed by Fenimore's inability to conform to the social standards she was raised to follow. Maybe there was a small price to pay, but Fenimore made it out. And she wouldn't have it any other way.
The EP concludes with "Stay a Little Longer," a sonic counterpart to "Holding Hands." The songs echo each other musically, suggesting a through-line of love and trust, even as the relationship began with a touch of uncertainty. Here, Fenimore reflects on how her relationship has improved her life and made her stronger. The song will hold special meaning to anyone who has felt uncertain about taking the plunge into a new relationship.
With Fenimore's gentle pop-infused approach, "Stay a Little Longer" — and the rest of Leaving Ashwood — has a dreamy quality rooted in Fenimore's earthy lyricism. The songs draw you in before you realize you're about to be emotionally sucker-punched by Fenimore's frank storytelling. Leaving Ashwood is undoubtedly proof of concept of Fenimore's newfound vulnerability, leaving one to anticipate her next project eagerly.