Betty's Grill sits just off Charlotte on 49th Avenue, roughly a stone's toss from a noisy stretch of I-40, and is about as unassuming a neighborhood bar as you're likely to find in Nashville. Beer posters and NASCAR paraphernalia line the timeworn wood-paneled walls. A large TV flickers in one corner of the single rectangular room. The regulars tend to be cut from old-school, straight-shooting, working-class cloth. In other words, it's not exactly the kind of place you'd expect to see a band called Unicorn Hard-On.
And yet, over the past few years, Betty's has taken over where the defunct Ruby Green and a loose network of harried house-show hosts left off, and become the de facto center of Nashville's experimental music scene — thanks to the efforts of Leslie Keffer. An internationally known musician herself, she recently released a solo album, Give It Up, on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace imprint. Keffer has become a linchpin, booking a steady roster of adventurous, unusual bands and putting Betty's on the map as a destination for touring acts from all corners. (Moore, for instance, played a solo show there the last time Sonic Youth came through Nashville.)
It's taken some time to balance the bar's older patrons with the sometimes outré music that gets performed there. "At the beginning, it was kind of like, 'What the hell is this?' " Keffer admits, but she's managed to foster a real sense of community in this decades-old West Nashville dive. "When the flood happened, everyone looked out for each other," she says. "The local musicians played for free to raise money for the older regulars who lost their homes. I think that what I'm trying to do is happening, slowly but surely."
And while she books plenty of wild, challenging, out-there bands to play for sliding-scale door money at Betty's, Keffer is no snob. "I don't want it to ever feel clique-y," she says, and backs that up by saying the L.A.-based dance-pop group Captain Ahab, who had a song in Snakes on a Plane, will be playing there soon. Keffer's tastes run the gamut from unapologetic radio pop to flat-out noise, a gamut that's perhaps best embodied by one of her favorite Nashville artists — and one she'd love to book at Betty's one day: "Oh my God," she says, "I would love it if Ke$ha played here!"