Rosa Lee Carson, better known as Moonshine Kate, was one of the first women to record country music during the 1920s and one of the genre’s earliest female comedians. Her father, Fiddlin’ John Carson, made the first successful country record in 1923 and went on to become one of the most extensively recorded country stars of the 1920s. Rosa Lee Carson sang and played guitar and banjo with her father and his band, the Virginia Reelers, first on radio broadcasts and then on more than 100 recordings for the OKeh and Bluebird labels between 1925 and 1934.
Rosa Lee Carson, born in Atlanta on October 10, 1909, was the youngest of nine children of Jenny Nora Scroggins and John Carson. She began singing and buck-and-wing dancing at stage shows and political rallies as part of her father’s musical act when she was five years old. By the age of fourteen she was already proficient on the guitar and the banjo. During the early 1920s she began performing with her father on Atlanta’s flagship radio station, WSB, and touring with him and the Virginia Reelers at stage shows throughout Georgia and the Southeast. After graduating from high school, Carson became a permanent member of her father’s band.
Carson made her recording debut in June 1925 at the age of fifteen, when she accompanied her father on guitar on four songs for OKeh Records. At the session she also recorded two solo sides, “The Lone Child,” a Tin Pan Alley song about a ragged, wandering orphan boy, and “Little Mary Phagan,” a sentimental ballad, composed in 1915 by her father, in response to the Leo Frank case.
For the next nine years Carson accompanied her father and the Virginia Reelers on tour and on recording sessions in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Camden, New Jersey. In addition to the recordings she made with her father, she also recorded a handful of solos and duets on which she sang lead, including “The Drinker’s Child,” “Texas Blues,” “The Last Old Dollar Is Gone,” and “The Poor Girl Story.” In 1928 Polk Brockman, OKeh’s Atlanta records distributor and talent scout, gave Carson the nickname Moonshine Kate to enhance her hillbilly image, and she embraced it proudly for the rest of her life.
Between 1928 and 1930 Carson performed with her father on eighteen skit recordings for OKeh Records, including “Moonshine Kate,” “John Makes Good Licker,” and “Corn Licker and Barbecue, Parts 1 & 2.” These skits, combining comedic dialogues with brief musical interludes, revolved around the manufacture and consumption of moonshine whiskey in the north Georgia mountains. On them, she played Moonshine Kate, the spirited, sharp-tongued hillbilly daughter of her father’s moonshiner character.
After the collapse of record sales during the Great Depression ended their recording contract, Carson and her father worked as campaign entertainers for Eugene Talmadge’s 1932 Georgia gubernatorial campaign and in several of his subsequent campaigns for governor and U.S. senator. When she wasn’t performing, Carson worked for the Atlanta Department of Recreation during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1944 she married Wayne Johnson, an Atlanta machinist. She lived briefly in Portland, Maine, where her husband was stationed in the navy during World War II (1941-45), but after his discharge they returned to the Atlanta area.
After retiring, Carson and her husband ran a fishing lodge on Lake Seminole, near Donalsonville. In later years she gave numerous interviews about early-twentieth-century Atlanta and its old-time music scene, including a series of oral histories with Gene Wiggins for his 1987 biography of her father, Fiddlin’ Georgia Crazy. In 1983 Carson and her father were among the first group of old-time musicians inducted into the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame. She died in 1992 in Bainbridge at the age of eighty-three.